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Approaching Innovation

“Innovation” is a word that gets thrown around a fair amount in today’s economy. Companies dedicate entire positions to managing innovative processes, cities hold large conferences to discuss how to best foster innovation in their respective regions, and theorists study innovative practices to develop frameworks for innovative product development. While many people believe the innovative process is born purely from moonshot ideas and elbow grease, the amount of work done in modern industry to formalize the process may beg to differ.

There’s no debate about the importance of innovation to any business. It’s the Innovator’s Dilemma: a business can do everything right, make good managerial decisions, and still go under due to an emerging disruption that supplants the current offerings’ place in the market. If a business wishes to stay relevant in any market subject to upheaval (read: any market), they must find a way to maintain agility and invest in technologies that may not provide immediate returns, but represent the future of the industry. Historically, businesses that can’t provide this sort of adaption go under, while their more capable competitors ride the wave of the new technology right to the top.

Of course, Apple and Samsung have been throwing red shells at each other since smartphones became a thing, but that’s a different discussion altogether.

For any Mario Kart fans out there, these kinds of disruptions are the blue shells of the business world.

Because of this dilemma, a few frameworks have been developed to manage innovation. The most prevalent way people perceive innovation is referred to as the ideas-first approach, as coined by Anthony Ulwick in his paper, “What is Outcome-Driven Innovation?”. Under this approach, innovation is done simply by brainstorming a myriad of jumbled ideas and pursuing their creation to see if they are feasible products. This mentality is supported by many companies, who hold formal brainstorming sessions to come up with these ideas, and attempt to filter out the bad ones quickly and efficiently in in hopes of happening upon a breakthrough by process of elimination. However, in established companies looking to stay relevant in the face of a volatile industry, this exercise is not targeted enough to be able to provide consistently viable results.

Ulwick’s paper goes on to talk about the concept of needs-first innovation, and how the Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI) model gives structure to this approach. In needs-first innovation, products are created by examining the needs of the customer, figuring out which of those needs have not been met by current market offerings, and developing a product to solve these problems. This sounds like a much more solid process to follow, but Ulwick still insists that this idea is structurally flawed on its own.

To put a more established process behind this idea, Ulwick developed the ODI framework, focusing on the concept of jobs-to-be-done. Under this school of thought, innovators must think of the job that a consumer needs done as the unit of analysis: in other words, the consumer hires the product for a certain job, and if that job is not done adequately, the consumer will not buy or use the product. This is a more targeted way of looking at customer needs than just asking them for their issues with current products, as simply harvesting these concerns can result in short-sighted improvements rather than an innovative solution.

As you can tell, horses normally aren't among my mane choices for drawing.

As Henry Ford allegedly stated, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” (Although, this could potentially be pretty cool to witness…)

By considering the jobs a customer needs done, teams can do more than what is referred to as “scattershot brainstorming” and instead come up with targeted ideas for serving customer’s needs. By knowing more about what the customer explicitly needs to do, companies can focus their creative efforts on cultivating a novel solution to a core problem, while others without this focus may find themselves wasting resources and failing to adapt in a changing market.

With all of this being said, it’s important to realize that there is still value in the traditional idea of ideas-first innovation. In particular, startup businesses have the agility and general volatility to pursue the potentially revolutionary ideas that established businesses may not be able to afford investing in. I fully stand behind the belief that it’s always worth attempting to act on an idea and create/learn in the process in lieu of wasting valuable time internally debating why a idea would or wouldn’t work. Though it’s often impossible to invest this sort of effort in the professional world, those with the time to spend and the desire to grow should always be seeking to innovate and create in any way they possibly can.

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