Thoughts on a Theory of Innovation

Do you have thoughts about a theory of Innovation?

Over the past 50 years, researchers have learned a lot about innovation, including:

  • Classifications: there is incremental, innovative, radical and also disruptive innovation,
  • Collaboration: Innovation should be open and collaborative with suppliers or outsiders, 
  • Customer or user collaboration is especially effective (VOC, Lead Users, Co-creation),
  • Another form of collaboration is to bring a product (minimum viable?) to market and learn real-time from market reaction (experiment, probe and learn, lean innovation or effectuation)
  • Product innovation and process innovation are not easily separated in services, and most product now have a major service component,
  • A formal innovation process seems to help incremental innovation but may inhibit, radical or disruptive innovation and may also hinder organizational learning.

But what would be the central theory or theories of innovation?

I see three key pieces of innovation:

  1. Discovery or recognition of a solution to a customer problem or need,
  2. Evaluating the potential of a solution (regardless of source), and
  3. Orchestrating a collaborative effort to bring the solution to market.

The last two pieces match famous Steve Jobs observations:

  • Good artists copy; great artists steal.
  • Real artists ship.

Why am I asking for your help today?

Suppose that you volunteered to talk for 10 minutes to a conference about my thoughts on a theory of innovation… And suppose you realized that the audience would include:

  • Innovative leaders from several industries,
  • The former and current editors of the leading academic journal of innovation,
  • Leading academic researchers, including the authors of Serial Innovators, Will and Vision, “Voice of the Customer”, and other key innovation books and articles.

Wouldn’t YOU be asking everyone for their thoughts?? So…

Do you have thoughts about a theory of Innovation?

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5 Responses to Thoughts on a Theory of Innovation

  1. Prof Gary,
    Thought provoking (as usual). My current interest in innovation centers around adoption. Without adoption by the masses even an Ipad cannot justify its existence. I will spare us all the Latin and the use of a passive infinitive to boot, but Cicero said “The mob wants to be duped”. This cuts both ways. The masses continue doing things in traditional manner because they believe it is the best way to do things. That said, the masses also want to adopt newer/better ways of doing things if the story is compelling. The cynical conclusion is that this is true even if the innovation is not truly an improvement. I tend to believe it is the role of the innovator to test that first and only propose a story to the masses that is based in truth. How is that for some heavy lifting on a Friday morning?

  2. Gary Schirr says:

    Cool! Thanks for something to think about, Sander!!!

    Is your view of “compelling” consistent with minimum via product and lean testing?

    Forgive any typos – using my iPad.

    Off to the cocktail party…

  3. Gary:

    My original comment seems to have been lost, but it was something along these lines: Everyone wants to simplify innovation into one theory, like physicists seeking the Grand Unified Theory. But while innovation activities are simple: Discover, Develop, Deploy to follow your three stages above, the actions are simple. Its the context that’s hard.

    If I were speaking to a group like you I’d suggest that innovation is simple on the surface and fiendishly difficult as you grow to understand it. What makes it difficult are the qualitative and soft skills that are necessary: strategic vision, leadership, capabilities, the curse of knowledge and corporate culture. Like Paul says, Hebrews 11: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Innovation is a lot like that, and no single “theory” of innovation will suffice.

  4. See the book Abundance for a great discussion of the advances of the next three decades.

    Already a gold mine owner offered a prize to anyone who told him where to dig for more gold. He also provided the always most secret geology data to everyone for free. Nobody does that. It worked and increased the value of the mine by orders of magnitude. That was in Wikinomics.

    I’m currently looking at advances in medicine and big pharma and the FDA are often in the way, but I’m willing to do the work in another country and access it by medical tourism until the FDA is shamed into accepting the technology. It’s another example of expanding the problem (to go outside the USA) and finding an easier solution to a big problem. It took England one year, Canada 15 years and the USA 39 years to approve metformin, a diabetes drug. Another example is insulin potentiated chemotherapy which is used in England but not even mentioned in medical schools in the USA since it cuts the profits for cancer fighting drugs.

    See Henry Bauer’s book, “Dogmatism in Science and Medicine” to understand the scope of some of these impediments to innovation.

  5. Joel Fay says:

    Good summary on innovation. Here’s my take…

    Product Innovation needs…

    Dreams—to see the future in new ways.
    Choices to on…
    -what can be executed now,
    -with current skills and technologies,
    -aligned with a ripe market of adopters,
    -willing to pay the price of the functionality,
    -to solve their real or perceived needs/wants/motivations/pains/frustrations.

    It starts with dreams—giving a clear vision of the future. As a kid when Star Trek aired, my dreams of what could be was fueled: tiny hand held communicators, writing on iPad precursors, portable computer memory modules looking like small chunks of plastic, light-beam weapons, hand held scanners, injections without needles…all dreams that now are real…and vastly different than the reality of 1966.

    Then the trick is to make the right choices on what’s next, and that’s often a job for a special leader who understands what’s possible now, along with people’s cravings. That leader combines dreams and the understanding of new technologies, and market conditions to choose what to risk in investment—balanced with current product mix and business conditions.

    There are many challenges to product innovation…but it starts with dreams, and that skilled leader to make some good choices.

    I served for 30 years as a senior leader in a product driven company offering both disruptive and incremental products—to lead its market.

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