Innovation Is The Art Of Defining Boundaries21 February, 2017 / Articles
Everyone is talking about innovation it seems. From Innovation Labs to Hacks, working with startups to MVP sprints, the tide is turning and to best protect our business we need to unleash the power of creativity to forge ahead.
I love this spirit, but before we mesh drones with iBeacons, 3D print a QR code and get some Graphene into our prototype, let’s think about how transformational innovation really works. At a time where everyone want’s digital transformation, we’re seeing more digital garnish, PR exercises and award chasing than anything else. So how does innovation really happens?
The Design Funnel.
Most progress and improvements happen through a combination of incremental improvements ,those subtle gradual improvements that evolve over time. Then large sudden step changes or paradigm shifts.
Most technology follows these paradigms.
For music we had the Vinyl age, the Tape age, the CD age, the MP3 and now the streaming age. Nobody wants to sell DVD’s in the era of streaming.
For the long distance goods travel we had the era of feet, the era of horse-drawn carriages, the era of canals, then trains, then road haulage. Those building for the former age too late went bankrupt quickly.
For money we’ve had the age of shells then grains, then the age of coins, the age of demonstrative notes and now the age of digital money.
Design Assumptions Define the Process.
What tends to happen within each of these separate eras is that innovation happens within them. It’s a sort of evolutionary funnel where designs iterate and refine. In order to start any project, one needs to work within parameters, a blank sheet of paper is hard enough, but at least you have paper with edges.
Thinking with no known limitations is so hard and expansive as to be impossible.
When you define a solution by parameters you limit the scope, but you define the edges to the design funnel. If you know that your portable CD player needs to fit a CD, you add on functions like better batteries, shock proofing, you make it smaller, as time goes on the improvements get smaller and smaller and you reach an optimum product. You know you can’t make the CD slot smaller, that’s fixed.
It’s exactly the same way that evolution works, slowly but surely small mutations and different designs evolve to form the greatest possible design for the current reality.
Design Assumptions Kill Big Leaps.
The problem with most companies is that their internal efforts to innovate are all too readily hampered by barriers that don’t exist.
I imagine radical innovation in Kodak for the future of photo’s involved assumptions about the way people use cameras, the way people got their photo’s developed, radical innovation from that mindset looked like a totally reimagined way to get photos printed.
Radical innovation for Blockbusters video would have been ways to see the store in a new light, a way to sell more diet coke while people are renting videos, new ways to show videos on the shelf by staff recommendations, nobody ever thought to consider the future of video watching.
For retailers today, they add new innovations onto the side of failing business models. They assume the future of omnichannel is an iPod next to the cashiers desk, not totally rebuilding their cost base to compete with online only models.
The Folly of Building for the Past.
Time and time and time and time again companies fail to open their minds to the paradigm shifts, companies like Coin will fail because making credit cards better won’t matter when the world is going to move onto totally new phone based payment mechanisms.
The nuclear submarines commissioned for the war we imagined in 2005, won’t be of any help, when they enter service in 2020 when wars are of an entirely new nature.
Spending 20 years to build a new runway to add capacity to an airport, may have been a wise move in 1980, but by 2037 it’s likely software could add more capacity or replace the need for planes.
I’d argue even Tesla may need to be wary that the future of personal mobility, probably won’t be with car ownership, but mobility subscriptions.
It’s this lack of innovation that’s evident everywhere.
Next time you plan on innovation, remember to fix what really needs to be fixed and unleash the potential of the paradigm leap.