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Three myths about innovation

by Jim Stikeleather on November 3, 2011


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Three myths about innovation

Innovation, simply defined, is the process that takes new ideas and implements them in a way that creates value. It's not the same thing as invention, which is an event that occurs at a distinct point in time, often resulting in a single product. Innovation is the extension of invention, the act of bringing things that are invented to market, repeatedly.

An innovation process creates measurable value, by increasing productivity, improving quality, generating new markets, or creating other benefits to consumers, producers, or both.

 As Dell Services' chief innovation officer, I spend a lot of time talking with people about innovation and I'm often amazed how many misconceptions there are about it. Here are three popular myths about innovation, along with some comments about how we at Dell are addressing the issues they raise.

Myth: Successful innovations require large-scale, disruptive revolution

Reality: The most successful innovations are often the simplest.

Truly disruptive ideas rarely emerge from asking people what they want because their answers are grounded in existing reference points.  As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” What they really needed was a better  -- that is more reliable, more capable, and faster -- mode of transportation.

Today, most companies are still learning that lesson as they use traditional market research tools to understand what customers would like to see in the next generation of existing products and services. Dell, for example, gathers requirements from tens of thousands of customer interactions every day. This input helps deliver sustained, incremental improvements to products and services.

Disruptive innovations require something more: the ability to properly articulate an underlying customer want into a product or service customers really need. Dell is now engaged in the process of disruptive innovation based on the next-generation capabilities of cloud computing.  The company still listens to what customers want – in fact, we're listening even more intently than ever before.  The resulting “pragmatic innovation” is important, but the larger emphasis is the development of solutions that transform how information is delivered and consumed.

And remember that even brilliant innovations can face hurdles seeing the light of day, no matter how inspiring or world-changing the ideas are.  Experts rejected the germ theory, dismissed the telephone, and scoffed at the semiconductor.  Success requires persistence and a well-conceived strategy for engaging with detractors to create a pathway for an idea’s success.  Only then does innovation result in execution.

Myth: You have to be creative (egotistical) to be innovative

Reality: While creative thinking is helpful, innovation is a systematic discipline

Too often we view innovation as the purview of a select few who talk about collaboration, co-creation, and openness. But to broaden the scope of innovation and bring in the best ideas, these experts will need to relinquish some authority and invite others into the process. The experts will still be crucial in navigating the corporate and bureaucratic environments that are often resistant to new ideas and approaches, but they will do so in collaboration with many newcomers. 

At Dell, we have several different innovation systems, some of which are research units looking at the world three or more years out, others that are collaborative systems aimed at crowdsourcing ideas. The groups conduct formal investigations into what research needs to be done, and they develop long-term road maps describing the products and services that should be developed -- along with the more tactical operating plans and budgets that support those plans.

These researchers draw inspiration from Dell's two large-scale, open innovation systems:

  • IdeaStorm allows customers to submit ideas for new products, services or improvements to existing options.  Through this process, Dell customers have contributed 15,559 ideas, submitted 741,950 evaluations and offered 91,815 comments on those ideas.  Dell has implemented 438 of those ideas.
  • EmployeeStorm is a venue that encourages employees to do the same. To date, Dell employees have contributed 5,778 ideas, submitted 301,993 evaluations and 25,350 comments on those ideas.  Dell has implemented 269 ideas based directly on employee submissions.

Dell's Services Innovation Group acts as an incubator for good ideas, trying to ignite waves of action that roll through the company. We work with Dell's various CTOs, who have responsibilities to our customers in many industries to improve existing products and services. And we work with the product groups and delivery organizations to produce, market, and deliver these solutions.

Dell's innovation process is a work in progress. Communication between all these groups is informal, and each works on its own with customers and analysts, as well as standards bodies, consultants, and outside researchers. We're working towards a more integrative approach to innovation

Myth: Innovation is expensive

Reality: While emerging technology and drug research are expensive, most innovations require a modest, disciplined investment of time and brain power

About 15 years ago, the economist Paul Krugman compared research trends in economics to the evolution of map-making in Africa

“The coastline …was first explored, then with growing accuracy, and by the eighteenth century that coastline was shown in a manner essentially indistinguishable from that of modern maps… on the other hand, the interior had emptied out.

 “The weird mythical creatures were gone, but so were the real cities and rivers. In a way, the Europeans had become more ignorant about Africa than they had been before… Improvement in the art of mapmaking raised the standard for what was considered valid data. Second-hand reports of the form “six days south of the desert you encounter a vast flowing river from east to west” were no longer something you would use to draw your map. Only features of the landscape that had been visited by reliable informants equipped with sextants and compass now qualified as valid data…”

The same thing has happened with market research and trend forecasting. We now rely so heavily on experts and their tools that we have lost sight of the more general (and often more than good enough) insights from immersion and observation of what's going on.

Trends are easy to identify, thanks to the press, analysts, and analysis of social media and other sources. The challenge of innovation is to detect where, when, and how these trends will evolve. Think of it as leaping from one S curve to the next. It's not enough to develop new technology; you have to know when and how to apply through careful analysis of the trends.

So how do we sort it out? There are many techniques, and some of the best rely on one of the best pattern-matching computers ever developed: our brains. One of the best ways to do this is simply content analysis:  What is and is not being written about and talked about – not only in business and technical literature, but also in the general press, social media, and fiction? (Science fiction is always a good leading indicator; just look at that Star Trek communicator strapped to your belt).  Beyond these sources, innovators should also keep an eye on what's occurring legislatively, socially, and economically.

 Other techniques include:

  • Application: how are people applying existing stuff in unintended ways?
  • Abstraction: is there a higher level description of what is going on?
  • Identification: you say “mammal,” but do you mean a duckbilled platypus or a female astronaut with a PhD in astrophysics and an MD in cardiovascular surgery?  In IT, identification is critically important for technologies such as “cloud,” and “security” and “virtualization.”
  • Mimicry: looking at variations and saying, “this is like that.”
  • Symmetry: if this happens, then the opposite should also happen.
  • Unification and convergence: multiple themes collapsing into one or fewer. 

Ways of doing all this include:

  • Brainstorming: immersion with customers, prospects, sales forces, or academics
  • Storytelling and its resonance with market elements
  • Shadowing, or “skulking” on social media sites to observe what people and organizations are really doing versus what they say they are doing (and yes, you can still ask them what they are doing)
  • Applying human factors and design principles to existing and evolving usage patterns to see paths of least resistance for trends to evolve to, prototypes to test with, and just good old fashioned creativity.

The real key is to be able to build the framework, an idea ecosystem, of themes and scenarios.  Such a framework enables quick validation of innovative ideas against when they occur.  This is necessary so truly new ideas that are forward thinking, feasible, viable and valuable are implemented rather than getting lost.

I would argue against the assumption about the need for even more investment in innovation.  One of the unintended consequences of the move to cloud and utility computing is that it totally disrupts the economic frictions that heretofore dictated the invention/innovation cycle of IT. With much less funding than required before, startups can create highly niched offerings that can be very profitable, due to reduced costs and less friction in sales, distribution, support, and maintenance.

Through careful consideration and analysis of trends using old-style forecasting techniques, businesses will find that innovation is not expensive. Knowing when and how to apply a new technology is of vital importance and can save businesses developing and investing in a new product that can become outdated quickly.

The annals of business history are littered with examples of great companies that collapsed because they protected a once successful business model that would become irrelevant. Innovation is your only defense against commoditization and terminal decline.  And a key feature of innovation is having the courage and wisdom to ask yourself if a trend will disrupt your business.

Only then do you have the choice of changing your business model, and even cannibalizing current operations to ensure long-term sustainability.  After all, who would ever have expected that people would use Alexander Graham Bell’s great invention for voice to recreate the telegraph (text messaging), which his invention displaced in the first place?


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maryann-farrugia's picture

Well I definitely agree to Myth & Reality #1, many people think that this kind of great innovation came from large scale but you didn't know that it just came from the simplest thing. For Myth & Reality #3 even though some innovations needs high technology source I still believe that there is a great way other than technology and yes it really needs the investment of brain power because if not how can you innovate things if you don't have the brain power helping you right?

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