The Road To Innovation Is Short

Faster Pussycat

The pace of business today is brutally fast. To compete, it is critical that companies embrace innovation as a core competency. They must engage in it constantly - iterative design, research and development flowing through a never-ending pipeline.

12 Degrees of Separation

In the pre-Industrial Age, the distance between the maker and the product was very short - maybe literally an arms length away. The maker also had a direct line to the person who was going to use it. In fact, they probably lived in the same town. 

But since then, with larger companies, the concept and the final product can be more than a dozen functional divisions removed from each other, all in the same company. Strategy, finance, consumer insights, trend, product development, merchandising, marketing, sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, retail, the list goes on. 

Game of Telephone

For companies, innovation and product development can be like the game of telephone. There are so many people and phases in the process that the original idea gets lost in the chain of communication by the final stage.

Small = Agile

So, how do large companies win in innovation? By mimicking what small companies do. Small equals agile. Smaller companies have shorter chains of command, short decision making matrices. They have shorter timelines. They have limited resources, so they are highly motivated to be efficient. Stakeholders have greater autonomy, so if they want to do something, they just can go ahead and do it. They don’t have to get 15 stakeholders, 5 divisions, and 3 VPs to agree first.

Distance is Death

The problem is distance. Distance leads to crumby innovation. This pertains to physical distance as well as lengths of time. They both lead to the dumbing down of ideas by degrees.

The traditional innovation approach is to gestate an idea in an R&D group, then hand it off to a Product Development team, who in turns hands off to Sourcing and then a Manufacturing group, etc.

As an innovative concept creeps down the road from one functional department to the next, little by little, the purity of an idea is chipped away. Sacrifices are made for materials, cost, factory efficiency, shipping, retail realities. At times the “innovation” that reaches market has little resemblance to the original concept - if it makes it there at all.

To preserve an innovative concept, the distance between the idea and the final manifestation of it has to be as short as possible.

New innovation approaches call for cross-functional teams to be present throughout the entire process. Multiple stages of review and approval can be condensed and happen simultaneously. This constant representation of disciplines in the pipeline insures that the concept remains pristine and that any divergence is immediately apparent to all stakeholders. This increased transparency has been proven to drastically reduce innovation mortality rates.

Idea Sex

Cross-functional teams can also be great for innovation concept generation. An example of this happened at 3M. Cross-functional teams were reorganized to share physical offices and departments. One day, the adhesive product development team, let’s call them “the glue guys”, was looking to develop a stronger glue. In the formulation process they mistakenly developed a glue that was weaker than the original and could be removed very easily.

It just so happened that the glue guys where working in the same room as the “notepad guys”. The notepad guys were looking for new ways to pin up notes on a board. And the glue guys had this new glue that was removeable. But it was just sticky enough to put a note up on the wall. It was because these two groups were shacked up with each other that the Post-it Note was born.

Fittingly, the Post-It Note has since become the go-to tool for innovation brainstorming sessions around the globe.

Start With Why, Not How

Historically, innovation started with what the factory can do. Some new technological invention would happen in machining. Then you would figure out what products you could make with it. It would start with: “we can make this” – “now, what can we do with it”. Pringles came from tennis ball cylinder packaging in just this way.

New theories and processes for innovation are more “needs driven”. They start with a problem that needs a solution and then precipitate the development of machining or technology to bring it into existence. You start with the problem and end with how-to-make it.

Gantt vs. Slinky

There are different ways to get to a given result. Some are linear, some not. Let’s say you are mapping out an innovation project. Start by imagining the project as a Gantt chart. Imagine a linear progression of a project from start to finish encompassing all the sequential stages. The steps are laid out in overlapping progress bars in two-dimensional space.

Now visualize the innovation project as a Slinky. Imagine a project’s progression seen on its side as a curly-que, more circular in structure, continuously overlapping itself. Does it veer up or down? In three-dimensional space, the “end” result may not be in the linear direction out to the right it - might in fact be above or below. Or even behind.

Insight + Context = Innovation

The principles of Design Thinking are also being brought to bear on innovation. Design Thinking employs empathy for the context of the problem. It leverages creativity in the development of insights and concepts, analyzing various solutions and then applies them to the problem.

By using observational techniques, Design Thinking can uncover problems and issues as well as opportunities that are not immediately apparent. This kind of approach to innovation encourages us to believe in possibility and to think in the abstract. It succeeds with a less linear and more iterative approach.

The New Thing

The market is constantly being saturated with re-makes, re-hashes and sequels to established products and services. In order to break through the noise, truly innovative solutions are necessary. Adopting a new approach to how you shepherd your ideas through the product development pipeline will help retain the integrity of your concepts. It will insure that you hit the market with true disruptive force.

Remember, we put a man on the moon before we put wheels on luggage. Innovation is not always linear. But the road to it is short.


Image credit: Christian Heilmann @