Incremental Innovations are good enough

Being in the R&D environment for close to two decades and having worked with some of the most innovative and result-oriented companies, I always ponder how to do something new that is better than what is available, be it a product or service. Every company would talk about wanting to be Innovative and developing that mind set and having it as one of the values, but how it is implemented in practice?

    When I talk about being Innovative, literature always talks about two kinds at the high level – disruptive innovations and incremental innovations.  Disruptive innovations, the term coined by Clayton Christensen, so far in the past few decades have been Automobiles, Television, Computers, Internet, Walkman, Search engines and  mobile phones, to name a few products. The incremental innovation can be variations of the above like tablets, laptops, hybrid cars, etc. or a new way of doing old things, especially betterment in manufacturing or design process.  Continuous improvements usually leads to incremental innovations and if the consumers enjoy a product better than the previous one but with identical or incrementally higher features, then this is a result of incremental innovation. Disruptive innovation usually displaces the way we consume things traditionally and heralds a new branch of consumerism as we know it.  Innovation, mostly referring to incremental ones by me here, must have one or more of the following criteria addressed properly:  lesser cost, easier to operate, faster than previous, additional features or different area of application of the same technology.

   How does a company walk the talk of being innovative?  First for innovation to be a cultural fabric of the organization, it has to be behavior that has to be consciously exhibited and a value that has to be supported by top leaders and must be made to trickle down the hierarchy. Being innovative is what makes you a recognized leader and differentiates you and your offerings from others.    Innovation, as it means to an organization, has to be some research development that HAS to translate to product realization and revenue monetization – as simple as that.   Hence every innovation to make sense, there must be a TIME FRAME that has to be monitored actively.

  The first value that I look out for is the appetite for risks.  You cannot have a conservative and risk averse culture and also be innovative.  Failures have to be pardoned and encouraged but repeated failures have to be addressed effectively as well.  The second most critical value is to have sound logical and analytical thinking in solving problems.  Since innovation is something new, you would NOT have expected that the individual to have done it earlier but you can always analyze how one goes about doing newer things.  At the interview stage in any company, it is better to ask some open ended questions which have potentially more than one answer and see how the person goes about solving it.

   Do not think that ideas just come out of certain individual.  Everyone does have some flashes of novelty now and then and it is always better to probe every brain and see what they have to offer. It is not the CTO that drives innovation – he is just a coach of the entire team that drives innovation.

   From a process perspective, it always starts with a Funnel. Have all stakeholders into a room and brainstorm ideas with the end point being what your company does or wants to do – this has to be stated clearly so that focus is maintained. It has to be run by the right sponsors who are capable of putting some of these ideas into action and have the decision making power to invest in them.  Put them in Post it Notes and start posting it up and slowly you would see higher themes or groups forming under which we can start shifting those post it notes.  Once the funnel is ready, filter them out properly and look out for ONE thing essentially:  REALIZABILITY.  This realizability, much like setting objectives during planning process, must have the genes of achievability(is it doable, given the resources), measurability (can we look at small gains on the way to ensure we are on track) and solvability (what it is solving and what it is improving).  You can club a few ideas thrown by individuals into bigger ideas and this way, you get the automatic support of all the individuals selected which is a win-win.

    The next step is to run it as a PROGRAM that has an impact to Business Goals – must be a visible program that has the sponsorship of the entire senior leadership team. So, the time-boundedness comes in and the leadership must be able to see incremental results as you progress along the development.  Constant feedback mechanism has to be in place so that if there is a hiccup, it gets addressed immediately or ways around it is found and the progress continues at a good pace.  If you are throwing darts in thin air, now is the time to set the targets. If you have innumerable features to be implemented, using a spiral strategy would come in good. Realize one or two features, see the results and whether it fits the purpose, correct if it does not and then add more features moving along.  This way, at any given point in time, we have something concrete to show and be proud of.  Do pilot runs and once you see revenue potential, put the pressure on yourself to realize it on a product or a service right away.  This gives you the early mover advantage. As you learn and adapt, try to capture them as your Intellectual property along the way by applying for patents then and there. Do not wait till the end game to see if a product can be realized.  Applying smaller stresses along the way is a good way to keep learning and achieving great things.

    IN my experience, I have seen lots of ideas being thrown at you, some of them are definitely realizable, but when you ask them to put the rubber on the road, not many takers are there. A clearly defined process can never be available for any innovative program but you need to come close and have discipline in your approach formally to enable results to happen – you must have a plan to address something vague and ambiguous into something distinct and clear. After a few products, some would have never seen the end, and many that would have made it, the whole organizations slowly gets tuned up to solve newer problems and this how the role modelling, behavior and value becomes a culture within an organization.

   I am open to suggestion on this article – this could seem trivial for people who have been there and done that as it would feel that I am stating the obvious, but I have realized that without a process and with lots of good technical brains, we still stand to lose out on innovation.  Disruptive innovations in technology happen once in one or two decades, but Incremental innovations can happen always.

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