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Innovation Suicide:
10 Ways Companies Kill Their Own Good Ideas

In late November, Patrick Whitney, Dean and Professor at the IIT Institute of Design1 in Chicago gave a talk and took part in a discussion as part of Smart Design’s Smart Salon series. The talk and the discussion was focused on “Innovation Suicide” and explored the ways companies kill their own good ideas. Patrick was joined by Steve Smith, a seasoned venture capitalist interested in some of the seemingly more esoteric yet increasingly more useful ways to “value” potential in the market.

Not enough people have seen the talk (only 182 plays as of January 29!) so I wanted to promote it. For those of you who don’t have the time to watch it, I’ve captured Patrick’s “10 Ways Companies Kill Their Own Good Ideas” and commented on them each below.

Smart Salon with Patrick Whitney and Steve Smith from Smart Design on Vimeo.

Patrick counted down from number 10 to number 1 in his talk, so I’ve outlined his ten in the same order.

“There is a disconnect between the way the world is beginning to work and the lenses companies are using to run their businesses and understand consumers.” - Patrick Whitney, Dean IIT Institute of Design

Innovation Suicide: 10 Ways Companies Kill Their Own Good Ideas.
10) Send innovative ideas into the normal development process.
The “normal” product development process, as documented in typical company product management materials, is filled with stage gates and governance meant to limit risk and predict value. The problem with this notion is that ideas representing incremental innovation and those representing breakthrough innovation are so fundamentally different that they really can’t be delivered in the same way. First, we have to look at new ways to identify disruptive opportunities, then we need to spin those out as Lean Start-ups or skunkworks.

9) Do not fail early, often and cheaply.
Let’s face it, most companies don’t like to fail at all. Entrepreneurs and individuals who accept failure as a part of growth, thrive on risk and creating the new are often times those who don’t fit in corporate culture. As a result, they are marginalized or pushed out for those with “proven track records” of predictable growth. Whether focused on an incremental feature change or a “breakthrough” service, building out early versions of an innovation and failing with them internally, with partners or customers is the fastest way to bridge the gap between conjecture and reality.

8) Conduct research on existing users while ignoring non-users and extreme users.

“I think there is fraud being committed by much of the user-centered design community when we look at 5 people, 10 people, 30 people, sometime 1 person and then talk about what users will do. The sample isn’t big enough. We all know that. The value with that work is what users might do and to help people who have lots of experience make better, less conventional and wiser decisions.”

Patrick levels a bold pronouncement here at the user-centered design community. I’ve always said to my clients that contextual research isn’t about learning what all customers are doing but what some of them are doing which may suggest the future. As William Gibson smartly said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” Experts need to connect a nuanced understanding of customers (and potential customers) from contextual research to macro trends and a relevant potential future for their clients and companies. At the end of the day, it’s not an isolated “fact” from user research that should drive decisions but how a fact connects to a larger story.

7) Research products instead of activities.
This may seem obvious to the initiated but is difficult to fathom for company management obsessed with their own products. Unless our goal is incremental innovation (which is a fine goal if that is specifically what we’re focused on) of our current offerings, we should be looking at people’s (note I didn’t say customer or user) values and everyday activities rather than how they use a specific product. This is especially true given a larger movement to services. Obsessing over current products will guarantee the next iteration of that it has a button in the right place, but doubtfully what the next product should be.

6) Focus on How before What.
In the 1950’s, there were a handful of toasters one could purchase at the local appliance store. Brands really “meant” something because there were very few, relatively slowly evolving products associated with each brand in each category. My grandmother still refers to her refrigerator as a “frigidaire” because it, and many other brands like it, were singular and iconic of the mid-20th-century. Times have changed radically because we can now really build anything and consumers have a paradoxical riches of choice. Enter any modern day Target or Tesco and walk to the toaster aisle: an entire aisle is needed because there are so many varieties. Do a search for “toaster” on Target and Amazon and you’ll have 180 and almost 9,000 results respectively. As a result, a shift from the “how”–the focus of traditional offering development processes–to the “what”–the focus of what we decide to develop–is more critical than ever before. What’s the point in building out yet another variation of a theme on the same product over and over again?

5) Want a delivery date and proof of success before starting.
This mistake could easily be categorized as “absurd but true”. Of course we can’t actually foretell hard dates or outcomes in a murky future! The level of detail MBA-driven financial accounting frameworks put in predicting the success of an innovation, sometimes five or more years in the future, borders on insanity. Having worked in both private and public firms, this problem is exacerbated in public firms as the focus on so-called “shareholder value” results in short-termism betraying an organization’s ability to invest in unpredictable, yet necessary for the future, explorations in new products and new markets. Good innovation planning absolutely can up the hit rate on delivering new products and services but applying predication methods–NPV or PMP–designed for relatively straight forward projects or financials just isn’t sensible.

4) Do not know that perfection is the enemy of success.
The little, but just as destructive, brother of failure is an obsession with perfection in delivering an offering to market. Unfortunately, too many people confuse sweating the details with delivering perfection across the board. The former is acceptable and necessary in the aspect of an offering where a new product or service delivers new value to customers–you’ve got to really nail it. The latter often results in bloated products filled with “features” that don’t fit together or products which never ship. Think about how the first iPhone shipped without the “cut and paste” feature. It was obvious that “cut and paste” would have made it a more “perfect” product but rather than focus on unnecessary “perfection”, Jobs, Ive and co. sweat the details on how the different functions came together in one device because that was the real value.

3) More comfortable being precisely wrong than roughly right.

“Just because you can’t count something doesn’t mean it’s not important.”

Analysis paralysis is stereotypical of modern-day corporations for a reason. Comfort with highly “precise” Excel-based decision-making has executives waiting to have answers delivered from a spreadsheet. Uncomfortable with a decision? Add a few more columns to make the analysis more robust. At the end of the day, executives need to be willing to make decisions without having all of the “facts” to prove a single direction. Pat rightfully suggests that an interdisciplinary design process, with a range of perspectives driven through quantitative and qualitative analysis and tangible synthesis, can help those same executives trust their intuition. Hard decisions are never going to be easy but they can be easier.

2) Think that transformative and incremental change are the same thing.
Companies tend to spend a lot of time refining their development process. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In my time at Yahoo!, we used the “PDP 2.0”; SAP had a different, yet similar, acronym and my clients since joining Sapient typically have a formalized process to bring a product or complex IT program through to fruition. In every case, the variability of those processes is pretty minimal. Similar techniques, similar measures and similar gates are used. Occasionally, something really innovative forces its way through the process, but the reality is, it rarely happens. So why don’t company leaders realize you can’t just expect innovation out of an incremental process? As noted earlier, we have to identify disruptive opportunities, then we need to spin those out as Lean Start-ups or skunkworks.

1) Want to innovate as long as it does not require change.
As Pat jokes in his talk, this is funny because it’s true. Companies are built to be optimized around a set of offerings which inherently reduces the flexibility to change. The whole point of introducing an innovation process should be to help manage the forces of creative destruction rather than having them unexpectedly manage you. Ideally, we identify and develop distinctive value so relevant to our current and potential customers that our own products, and our own organizational structures become obsolete. Innovation equals change, so you better embrace it.

Pat concludes with one major message. He says the biggest issue company’s have is that they:

“Use yesterday’s lenses to view challenges of today and tomorrow.”

By way of illustration, he introduces this “Brief history of the 20th century in one slide with no words”:

Handmade production moved to assembly lines with Henry Ford, and this disruption became the norm–everyone could have a car as long as it was black. Alfred Sloan came along and said there could be a car for every person and every purpose, and with him market segmentation and platform development moved from a disruption to the norm. Marketing and styling took over. Toyota and the Japanese focus on quality ended up being a disruption which has now spread to every other major corporation... but what is next?

“We don’t know what’s coming next. My sense is that it’s something that deals with intangibles, deals with behavior, and deals with helping companies become more comfortable in an uncertain world.”

I would say Patrick is being a little sneaky here suggesting he doesn’t know “what’s next”. He has been an active proponent of this being the current era of Continuous Innovation and a leading thinker on how to navigate situations with extreme ambiguity. I would bet he’s working on something to share in the future. We need more companies producing valuable new things and less committing Innovation Suicide.

1 It’s important to note I’m both an alumnus of the IIT Institute of Design as well as a current adjunct faculty.


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