Collaborate to innovate

The key areas you need to investigate if you want to inspire real innovation and drive ideas from mind to market.

Open innovation, the term used when companies and people literally open their problems and issues to the world looking for advice and solutions, is possibly the most obvious form of collaboration.

There are a lot of issues with this open innovation model, chiefly ownership of IP. This has the potential to be a minefield if not properly understood and managed.

However, before we go too far down the path of collaboration and open innovation it’s useful to agree on what we even mean by the word innovation, one that seems to have been corrupted by so many … achieving nothing more that turning the simple into the complex!

It can be argued that innovation is the basis for all things new and better, but what inspires innovation and new ideas? More to the point, what is the link between an innovative or inventive idea and an outcome?

Risky business

If we think of innovation when applied to building a business and making money, then we need to think about the risks in business.

In most cases when an idea is being pursued and a technology development is being undertaken, whether it be an IT solution, new app, a tangible product or a new service, in essence there are only two risks that need to be considered.

“Collaboration and finding the best parties to assist you on your innovation journey is essential.”

The first is what we may refer to as technical risk – can the technologist achieve the desired outcome?

In science and technology, for the most part the technologist will deliver a solution or at least will be able to give some insight as to the risks involved. For example, if we were to ask the technologist to give us anti-gravity boots they would easily be able to assign the risks associated with achieving an outcome. Of course, in this case, the risk would be enormous.

On the other hand, if we asked that a clock be developed with hands that were in fact LED strips that were clearly visible in darkness, the answer would be that this is achievable with no technical risk.

In short, technical risk is something we can generally measure and assign a degree of risk.

However, assuming I did achieve the technical outcome with my innovation, the real questions to be asked, and the ones that too many innovators and even large companies get so wrong so often, are “Can I sell it?” and “Will there be a market?”

Market risk is without doubt the single biggest risk in bringing new products to market.

With this in mind we can coin a definition of innovation that has the effect of reducing market risk and with that we can explore the opportunity landscape to hopefully create successful innovation.

When we look at some products from the past, Google, the iPhone, MasterCard and Visa, Nokia, Seiko, the IBM PC and Windows, one thing these all have in common is that none were first to market. Indeed, all were followers of some prior art and yet all these were great successes. The secret to mitigating market risk is to find a product or service that everybody is buying and simply change it in some way to add value.

Defining innovation

The common synonyms for innovation are improvement or advancement. If we take it that people buy things because they see value for money, then perhaps the best definition for innovation is “change that adds value”. Indeed, this derivation and definition I coined in my book Think New many years ago has now been adopted by many organisations and innovation practitioners worldwide.

Whereas innovation may be about making changes for improvement, inventions are more about novelty. Novelty of course is an essential ingredient to a successful patent application. Having said that, there are many innovations that do contain elements of novelty and are thus also patentable. Indeed, one may argue that there are few absolutely new inventions, though a few that may fall into this category might be the electric light bulb, the transistor device, the atomic bomb, radar and the laser.

The task now falls to the creation of innovations. How does one do that and why is collaboration so vital to successful innovation outcomes?

The secret to this comes from three elements, all essential ingredients that underpin successful innovation:

1. Observation

The key to finding opportunities for innovation lies in observation. That is, looking at the way people interact with the world, with products and services and finding the gaps and value added opportunities. Of course, the idea embodied in the relatively new concept of Design Thinking asks one to look at the customer. However, from my reading of this methodology, it fails to ask how one looks at the customer. Furthermore, it should also ask you to look at the customer’s customer. For example, is the retailer your customer or the purchaser and user of your product? The packaging industry seems to have worked that one out, for example, in attending to supermarket shelf-storage space and customer convenience in opening and storing products!

Indeed, there are five things that Design Thinking seems to miss in exploring customer behaviour and the way people interact with products and the world:

  • predictable activity
  • widespread activity
  • repetitious activity
  • comparative activity
  • trends.

If we explore our customer with these five “seeds” of opportunity, the game gets a lot easier. It’s further made easier if you then use the eight thinking triggers I refer to as “catalysts” to stimulate thoughts about these seeds.

I call this “opportunity capture”.

2. Knowhow borne of experience

Young children are often very good at seeing what to them appears obvious, whereas people who have been doing the same thing the same way for too long often seem prone to overlook the obvious.

The young, the uninitiated and those untarnished with tradition are often very good at seeing what may be possible, but what they lack is knowledge and experience in looking at how such opportunities may be addressed and what seems sensible and may be possible.

This is where experience and an older head is so valuable in innovation outcomes.

There is a great saying: “Knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom comes from experience and experience comes with age”. Here are some examples that illustrate why knowledge borne of experience is so important.

  • The inventor who correctly realised that the lead on a hairdresser’s hair dryer got in the way came up with the solution of a battery-operated hair dryer. What his lack of knowledge failed to identify was that even a car battery would not have had the capacity to run a hair dryer. As it happened, the inventor did toil away at this innovation for far too long and spent quite a lot of money before acquiring the knowledge that, at this point in battery development, his idea was simply impractical.
  • A building company with four large innovation teams were trying to find ways to identify if scaffolding that had been put in place and certified as safe was subsequently moved by subcontractors, and rendered unsafe. They had been wrestling with the problem without a solution until the problem was put to an older head. Their simple solution? Tie the scaffolding to the building with “tamper tape” that fractures on movement. This was a great solution, but one that the young innovators were simply too inexperienced to have even considered.
  • A warning device that alerted parents if a child had unfastened their seat belt was nice in theory, but its inventor overlooked the fact that many cars already have a “person sitting on the seat but seat belt unfastened” alarm. Perhaps an easier solution could be a seat belt clip latch that requires stronger hands to undo, or a two-handed operation action much like a safety interlock on a power tool. We refer to this as “re-question”. It asks you to explore the real issue and decide what the ideal question to be asked in addressing a problem is.

We refer to the type of connections from problem to solution as “connecting the dots”.

One of the great skills of clever entrepreneurs and innovators is to see the links between seemingly unrelated issues. This is where broadly-skilled technologists and open-minded thinkers come to the fore.

For example, suppose I run a lumber business. What possible connection does that have with mathematics? Perhaps none, you may think, or certainly the old-fashioned timber manager may have thought. But, in fact, linear programming, quite an old science these days, can optimise the way timber is cut to provide massive additional profits. But in the closed non-collaborative model, such knowledge may never be acquired.

How could the technologies developed in putting a man on the moon possibly connect to the business of pots and pans? Teflon coating. The connection between clocks and radio paging? Imagine having a clock equipped with a radio-paging receiver to receive time signals and, thus, keep perfect time and even update for summer time changes. Such clocks were developed in Australia long before we had mobile phones with perfect time. And what about the packaging business and home insulation? Now we use bubble wrap as the ideal insulator as it’s lightweight, cheap, easy to install and has fire-retardant grades available.

There is an endless list of these seemingly unrelated disciplines that can be connected with appropriate knowledge and collaboration between disciplines. Indeed, this is why the new paradigm of “opportunity capture” is now emerging as the preferred approach to the more narrow discipline of traditional innovation.

There are endless examples like this, which goes to show that perhaps inexperienced people may have great value in identifying possible innovation opportunities but really fail to deliver when it comes to real and viable outcomes.

3. Connections and collaborations

There are few cases where one individual or even one organisation can solve all the problems and go from mind to market with an idea without assistance or, better put, collaboration.

Possibly the best example is in the auto sector. Auto makers are really just assemblers of parts made in most cases by third parties. No auto maker can make all the chassis components, body work, paint, rubber, shock absorbers, alternators, windscreen wipers, the complex electronics, air conditioners and even something as simple as the seats and the seat belts. Of course, tyres, bearings even engines parts are provided by collaborating third-party suppliers.

Collaboration and finding the best parties to assist you on your innovation journey is essential whether it is in the design, engineering, manufacture, business planning and even sales and marketing. Even the very largest manufacturers, from food to cosmetics, usually outsource their packaging and advertising campaigns. Collaboration at its best.

Collaboration is definitely the name of the game when it comes to successful innovation outcomes.

Roger La Salle, innovation trainer, Matrix Thinking

This story first appeared in issue 27 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine.

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