Innovation is paramount to anyone seeking to implement positive change in their personal life, company, or community. Through innovation, people seek creative ways to solve complex problems and push society forward.
Some innovations result in only minor changes, like a few minutes saved in our day, while others have long-lasting positive consequences, like finding a new drug to treat diabetes.
Many companies fail in their innovation attempts. Consider the example of a company with a falling market share and downward-sloping revenues. It embarks on a journey of innovation, devoting teams of people to improve its products. After spending nearly $10M in two years, it releases the new product to the public.
Nothing happens. Sales don’t suddenly jump up; customers don’t express excitement about the new launch. Everything seems to be status quo.
Even though the company put lots of effort into developing new products, it failed to notice that it was solving a problem its customers weren’t interested in solving. The technology moved on; customers had further issues and the company’s competitors resolved them with a brand-new product.
Instead of devoting expensive resources to a problem that didn’t need fixing, the company should have looked to the future and brainstormed ways to address other client issues.
To ensure the innovation process is fruitful and results in a solution that people want, it’s critical to start by considering these two questions.
Too often, people and companies get caught up in the need for change. They see how they can improve something and they take immediate action. However, innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t consistently deliver results.
Consider a simple example of a beach chair. The chair is completely functional; it’s comfortable and lightweight. The chair manufacturer sees revenues falling, so it decides to pour some money into improving the beach chair.
The company adds a pillow to the back of the chair and some cushioning to the armrests. Afterward, it increases the sales price by $5 and waits for more money to come in.
However, the company doesn’t realize that its competitor commands a more significant market share because it has a beach chair that includes an umbrella. The first company failed to answer the question correctly; it didn’t honestly understand the problem.
Another issue is understanding the skills necessary to resolve the problem. Once the company knows what the problem is, it needs to identify who can fix it.
Sometimes, the company won’t have team members with the skills necessary to create a solution. In that case, it will need to hire individuals with the appropriate capabilities.
There are four basic types of innovation. Each type has different problems to address; thus, a different approach to resolving each issue is necessary.
Most innovation falls into this category. There’s already a product or service that addresses the issues of customers or individuals. The company seeks to gradually improve its creation to ensure it remains relevant over time.
In sustainable innovation, there’s a pre-existing market that uses the product. The company has an existing R&D or process-improvement team consistently looking for ways to update the product or streamline its processes.
A great example of sustainable innovation is Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone has been on the market since 2007. Every year, Apple introduces a new round of the iPhone, upgrading its capabilities and adding a few new features.
The principle characteristics of the iPhone don’t change; you can use it to make calls, take pictures, scroll through the internet, and text your friends. However, the updates add value to fans of the iPhone who are seeking new features and technological capabilities.
Breakthrough innovation addresses a problem that people haven’t yet thought to solve. A company or individual identifies the question, but there isn’t an existing product on the market that can resolve the issues. This is the Wild West of innovation.
Breakthrough innovation often requires various teams with different skill sets and a willingness to consider other points of view. Sometimes the path to a solution comes from somewhere unexpected, so open innovation provides a platform to get where the company is seeking to go.
Disruptive innovation involves introducing a new product or service in an industry ripe for technological change. Rather than continuously updating a product, a disruptor seeks to change the answer to the problem altogether.
This type of innovation is ideal when there is new technology available with the potential to improve the functions of products or services. Instead of improving a product that consumers are losing interest in, the company replaces it with a new one.
An example of disruptive innovation is the laptop. For several decades, desktop PCs ruled home computing activities. To log onto the internet, people used their desktop computers. While laptops existed, they were slow and clunky and simply didn’t have much high-performance capability.
Sometime in the mid-2000s, laptops became much more user-friendly. They’re now just as fast as desktop PCs and fully portable. People are more likely to purchase laptops than they were in the past.
Sometimes, questions aren’t known, but there’s a desire to innovate and create something in the world. Basic research provides the foothold for this type of innovation.
A few companies are known for providing tools for basic research to happen. For instance, IBM and Procter & Gamble have open labs that employees can use for research. Google allows some of its top researchers to take a sabbatical year and pursue the research they’re interested in.
Anyone can perform basic research — even companies without lots of money. There are government programs that fund research programs that anyone can apply to. Some universities also have talent that companies can tap into for their basic research needs.
Innovation is a necessary process all companies must regularly undertake if they want to stay relevant in today’s hyper-competitive environment. However, organizations must ensure they don’t waste their research money and time.
To make their innovations worthwhile, companies need to understand the question they’re seeking to solve and identify the skills required to address it.
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