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On Innovating Effectively
In the middle of August in 2012, Congressional approval rating hit an all time low.1 This is saying something—the same figure has been less than impressive in earlier eras. Yet the United States Congress isn’t the only institution with lukewarm support. People expect very little good news about the wars being fought (whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or on Terror, Drugs, Poverty, or Ignorance). The promising Arab Spring has given way to a recurring pessimism about progress. Gnarly health problems are on a tear the world over—diabetes now affects over eight percent of Americans—and other expensive disease conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and cancer are also now epidemic. The cost of education rises like a runaway helium balloon, yet there is less and less evidence that it nets the students a real return on their investment. Police have access to ever more elaborate statistical models of crime, but there is still way too much of it. And global warming steadily produces more extreme and more dangerous conditions the world over, yet according to about half of our elected
leaders, it is still, officially, only a theory that can conveniently be denied.
And yet . . .
We steadily expect more from our computers, our smartphones, apps, networks, and games. We have grown to expect routine and wondrous stories of new ventures funded through crowdsourcing. We hear constantly of lives around the world transformed because of Twitter or Kahn Academy or some breakthrough discovery in medicine. Esther Duflo and her team at the Poverty Action Lab at MIT keep cracking tough problems that afflict the poor to arrive at solutions with demonstrated efficacy, and then, often, the Gates Foundation or another philanthropic institution funds the transformational solution at unprecedented scale.
Storytelling is in a new golden age—whether in live events, on the radio, or in amazing new television series that can emerge anywhere in the world and be adapted for global tastes. Experts are now everywhere, and shockingly easy and affordable to access. Indeed, it seems clear that all the knowledge we’ve been struggling to amass is steadily being amplified and swiftly getting more organized, accessible, and affordable—whether through the magic of elegant little apps or big data managed in ever-smarter clouds or crowdfunding sites used to capitalize creative ideas in commerce or science.
One way to make sense of these opposing conditions is to see us as being in a time of radical transformation. To see the old institutions as being challenged as a series of newer, more agile ones arise. In history, such shifts have rarely been bloodless, but this one seems to be a radical transformation in the structure, sources, and nature of expertise.2 Indeed, among innovation experts, this time is one like no other. For the very first time in history, we are in a position to tackle tough problems with ground-breaking tools and techniques.
What Do You Do When the Problems Are Real, the Stakes Are High, Time Is Short, and Abstract Answers Are Inadequate?
That is what we’ve written this book to address: how you can innovate effectively. How you can get the future to show up just slightly ahead of its regularly scheduled arrival. How you can give teams that can’t afford to fail the robust methods they need to succeed—whether the problem they are tackling is small or large, trivial or epic.
Part of the innovation revolution is rooted in superior tradecraft: better ways to innovate that are suited for tougher problems. Yet most teams are stuck using goofy techniques that have been discredited long ago. This book is part of a new vanguard, a small group of leading thinkers who see innovation as urgent and essential, who know it needs to be cracked as a deep discipline and subjected to the same rigors as any other management science.
Our Journey to This Book
Ten Types of Innovation has had a long gestation period. Broadly stated, it codifies, structures, and simplifies three decades of work from a consulting firm in Chicago, Doblin, which I cofounded along with the brilliant design methodologist Jay Doblin. From its inception in 1980, Doblin has asked one pervasive, deceptively simple-seeming question: 'How do we get innovation to succeed instead of fail?'
Over the years we have kept three important dimensions in dynamic tension. We have a theoretical side, where we ask and seek real answers to tough questions about innovation. Simple but critical ones like,
Does brainstorming work? (it doesn’t), along with deep and systemic ones like,
How do you really know what a user wants when the user doesn’t know either?3 We have an academic side, since many of us are adjunct professors at Chicago’s Institute of Design,4 and this demands that we explain our ideas to smart young professionals in disciplined, distinctive ways. And third, we have an applied side, in that we have been privileged to adapt our innovation methods to many of the world’s leading global enterprises and start-ups that hanker to be future leading firms.
From the beginning, Doblin has itself been interdisciplinary, mixing social sciences, technology, strategy, library sciences, and design into a frothy admixture that has always tried to blend both analysis, breaking tough things down, with synthesis, building new things up. Broadly, we think any effective innovation effort needs plenty of both, stitched together as a seamless whole.
The heart of this book is built around a seminal Doblin discovery: that there are (and have always been) ten distinct types of innovation that need be orchestrated with some care to make a game-changing innovation. If you stick with the book, you’ll read about that soon enough. What you need to know now, at the outset, is that this is not just one thin discovery. Along with the framework itself, we also describe what you should do to surround this better way of innovating with even more robust protocols and processes.
Our Authoring Team
It is an axiom in writing that when you have a bunch of authors the resulting work is likely to be a compromised hash. Any movie you see with a whole string of screenwriters listed is unlikely to be brilliant. But at Doblin we do nearly everything in teams. This stems from the unique nature of innovation itself: no individual can possibly know enough all by himself or herself to crack tough innovation challenges, and the best teams have many different disciplines involved. So too with this book. It may help you to know the roles each of us played and thus better glimpse what kinds of contributions go into any complex synthesis.
As the long-time president of Doblin, I have pioneered many ideas and methods at the core of innovation effectiveness, including the Ten Types. I have dedicated my entire professional career to thinking about how to create appropriate tools and techniques—and about how our clients can most effectively use them in practice. I have spent more than 30 years learning and thinking about what makes innovation succeed or fail. As the principal author of the text, I am responsible for the basic arguments throughout, and the system of ideas here either succeeds or fails because of me.
Ryan Pikkel has an advanced degree in innovation skills from the Institute of Design and is himself a skilled designer. He managed the collaboration with a deep and talented team from our colleagues at Pentagram and he worked to ensure that every page in the book is as clear, concise, and accessible as possible. He is also personally responsible for the creation of the incredible Innovation Tactics Cards, which now permit us to codify and deconstruct any valuable innovation—or to help you to build one of your own with the help of robust, reusable modules.
Brian Quinn was for many years a traditional strategist, who left consulting to become a screenwriter, and then returned to the field—but only on the condition that he could focus on solving innovation problems for clients. This makes him one of the rare individuals who really can integrate most of the necessary components for innovation effectiveness—and he has done so repeatedly and reliably for several of our largest clients. His voice in the book has been crucial in helping to make the ideas more actionable for firms that need to innovate.
Helen Walters was the innovation and design editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. She has built an amazing personal network of practitioners and practices the world over. Of course, as a journalist, she values telling clear stories with solid facts and getting details right—an indispensable skill for a book with tales on every page.
Finally, our work was materially aided by Bansi Nagji. While he was not an author of this book, he played a role in refreshing and advancing the Ten Types of Innovation. More broadly, Bansi made innovation a strategic priority at Monitor and continues to do so today as a leader in Monitor Deloitte. The team is grateful for his support.
None of this may matter to you as a reader, since the book stands or falls as a unified whole. It mattered a very great deal to us as a team, though. We wanted to make a book that would reveal the whole, remarkable, and important emerging discipline of innovation, because so many people now see the urgent need to innovate. They sense that old ideas and structures must give way. They imagine that newer, better futures are out there, lurking in the loaming, just out of reach.
Well, reach for them, we say.
Start here. Start now. Foment your very own revolution.
We’ll show you how.
1 This depressing statistic comes to you courtesy of Gallup. See the back of the book for extensive links to additional notes and research data.
2 One elegant recent book that posits such a theory with far more elaboration is Too Big to Know by David Weinberger, one of the authors of the earlier and perennially interesting The Cluetrain Manifesto.
3 This allowed us to be one of the first consulting firms in the world with a full-time social science research unit. Ours was initially pioneered by the brilliant cultural anthropologist Dr. Rick E. Robinson, who went on to cofound (along with John Cain) the seminal research firm, e-Lab.
4 This leading graduate school was the first in the United States to issue PhD degrees in design.
We Discovered the Ten Types of Innovation in 1998. This Book Explains What We have Learned Since.
Innovation mostly fails. It doesn’t need to. You shouldn’t let it.
Innovation almost never fails due to a lack of creativity. It’s almost always because of a lack of discipline.
The most certain way to fail is to focus only on products. Successful innovators use many types of innovation.
Successful innovators analyze the patterns of innovation in their industry. Then they make conscious, considered choices to innovate in different ways.
Innovations can be broken down and analyzed. When you do so, you will learn why most fail and a few succeed.
Innovations can be built up systematically. Doing so increases your odds of success exponentially.
We know you might be skeptical now. Suspend your disbelief for the moment. After spending some time with this book and applying its concepts to your work, we believe you’ll see these assertions as emerging laws of innovation.
Innovation: A New Discipline Is Leaving the Lab
Now and then a new science emerges that radically changes how a field is conducted. This is precisely what is occurring now in the modern practice of innovation. But beware: myths are abundant and are exceptionally hard to eradicate.
Rethink Innovation: Eradicate Lore, Substitute Logic
When it comes time to innovate, even executives who deeply appreciate the discipline that modern management science has produced in finance, marketing, or logistics seem willing to tolerate all sorts of nonsense.
Too often, innovation is reduced to a series of brainstorming sessions, where facilitators proclaim things like,
Hey, there’s no such thing as a bad idea! (Actually, there really is such a thing as an indisputably bad idea.) Or innovation may be separated from the rest of the enterprise in a special lab or unit, a thin effort to quarantine the crazies. There, we feel like it’s only proper to crank up the creativity. We put people in a room, festoon the tables with toys, Nerf balls and guns, Post-it Notes, markers, and fun foods—all because innovation is supposed to be playful. Our use of sticky notes and black Sharpie markers has become almost fetishistic,1 one of the many rituals in our collective cult of innovation.
Here’s the problem—evidence shows that such techniques do not actually lead to better outcomes. A number of years ago, we researched innovation efforts in industries such as manufacturing and services. A full 95% of these efforts failed. A glance around at the state of contemporary innovation suggests we’ve gotten a little better, but still do plenty of things that are more grounded in hope or habit than evidence. This is unacceptable. We are overdue for a revolution in the way innovation is diagnosed, developed, fostered, de-risked, launched, and amplified.
Our ambition is to make innovation a systematic approach, moving the field from a mysterious art to more of a disciplined science. The Ten Types of Innovation is part of the foundation of that ambition. We know we are not working on anything as fundamental as the Human Genome Project nor as empirically proven as the periodic table (though we were inspired by the latter). The last thing we are trying to do is to shroud innovation with a different cloak. We use scientific analogies throughout this book to help illustrate our ambition rather than mirror our claims.
Nonetheless, our work over the decades has shown us that using the Ten Types of Innovation demonstrably increases your innovation hit rates. It will help you generate innovations that earn disproportionate returns and that are more difficult for competitors to copy. Sure, it’s not foolproof. Innovation depends on many factors we couldn’t possibly account for in one book (or actually any book). We can’t promise that you won’t run into problems and we can’t guarantee success (and anyone who does so is a huckster and a charlatan). But we are convinced that by thinking about innovation in a more systemic way, you improve your chances of building breakthroughs.
If you’re reading this book, you probably agree that the world needs more innovation now than ever before. We are going through one of the most intense periods of change our small blue planet has ever seen. During such times, the ability to innovate—to evolve, adapt, and improve—is indispensable. Indeed, in the midst of commercial globalization, shifting cultural and social norms, and increasing scarcity of natural resources, our continued success as a species may depend on it.
For enterprises, this means that companies must innovate in order to survive and thrive. Nothing lasts forever, and many companies that make a splash with one innovation fail to follow up on their success. As Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, famously commented in December 1997,
I take absolutely no comfort in where we are today.2 Meaning that if you aren’t moving faster than the rest of the marketplace, you’re already dead; you just haven’t stopped breathing yet.
Even companies with dominant positions can find themselves overtaken by firms playing by different rules. Once-mighty Kodak enjoyed a storied history before declaring bankruptcy in 2012. What’s sobering is that its executives were not, as conventional wisdom would have it, blindsided by the emergence of digital technology. Indeed, they were primary pioneers of the digital photography field. But, as is so often the case, these
new areas were small and easily dismissed—while sales of photo and cinema film paid all the bills.
This relentless imperative for more effective innovation is our reason for existence. This imperative has driven us over the last 30 years to study what works—to analyze innovation successes and look for patterns in their inputs and precursors. It has called for us to demystify our work as innovators and document, as plainly as possible, our practices and their outcomes. It has demanded that we establish a nuanced and precise taxonomy for innovation in all its forms and permutations. We share all of this so that we can all speak a more common and useful language. Our goal here is to codify and clarify what, in our experience, makes innovation work instead of fail.
Through overuse, misuse, hype, and enthusiasm, the word innovation has essentially lost its meaning. We often confuse the outcome and the process, and we describe everything in breathless terms, whether it is a modest product extension or a market-creating breakthrough. The definitions we show here help establish a nuanced understanding of what innovators actually do.
1 Innovation Is not Invention
Innovation may involve invention, but it requires many other things as well—including a deep understanding of whether customers need or desire that invention, how you can work with other partners to deliver it, and how it will pay for itself over time.
2 Innovations Have to Earn Their Keep
Simply put: innovations have to return value to you or your enterprise if you want to have the privilege of making another one some day. We like to define viability with two criteria: the innovation must be able to sustain itself and return its weighted cost of capital.
3 Very Little Is Truly New in Innovation
Biologist Francesco Redi established the maxim:
Every living thing comes from a living thing. Too often, we fail to appreciate that most innovations are based on previous advances. Innovations don’t have to be new to the world—only to a market or industry.3
4 Think Beyond Products
Innovations should be about more than products. They can encompass new ways of doing business and making money, new systems of products and services, and even new interactions and forms of engagement between your organization and your customers.
Innovation1 Is the Creation of a Viable2 New3 Offering.4
1 Knowing Where to Innovate Is as Important as Knowing How to Innovate
Striking oil or mining lithium depends far more on knowing where to dig than on the digging itself. Identify the right innovation opportunities and be very clear about the nature of the innovation you intend to create before you begin a project.
2 Tackle the Hardest Problems First
Don’t look for low-hanging fruit. Instead, target big, gnarly problems with no easy answer. This isn’t about what’s easy for you; it’s about solving deep problems for your customers. When innovating, focus on the hardest parts of a concept you have to get right. The easy stuff can wait until later.
3 Refuse Incomplete Answers
Having embraced big challenges, be patient and work to create comprehensive solutions. Look for ways to resolve tensions instead of defaulting to trade-offs. This requires you to be comfortable with ambiguity and to wait for the answers to emerge.
4 It Doesn’t Count until It’s in the Market
You haven’t finished the process of innovating until you bring the offering to market and you’re getting revenue for it. Or, for social or government contexts, you have helped your stakeholders in a new and better way that can sustain itself over time.
5 Turn Complexity into Simplicity
It’s easy to take something simple and make it complex: politicians and lawyers seem to do it for a living. Yet very few innovations are championed for their intricacy. Most are known for bringing elegance and simplicity to even the thorniest problems.
Innovating Requires Identifying1 the Problems That Matter2 and Moving through Them3 Systematically to Deliver4 Elegant5 Solutions.
Why You Need to Read This Book. Yes, You.
We celebrate the talented innovators of our times, whether Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs—but too often we draw the conclusion that innovation success depends on supremely talented individuals. Actual evidence points elsewhere. It turns out disciplined teams using effective methods get results that are 10, even 20 times better than current global norms.
Innovation is a team sport, and it’s not the domain of the rare genius or the chosen few. Anyone can (and should) learn to innovate and, with practice, anyone can become better at innovating. Simply put, there is no longer an excuse not to innovate.
Executives need to understand that not only can they expect innovation from anyone in their organization—they are doing themselves and their company a disservice if they don’t do so. The most innovative organizations rely on systems of individuals and teams working across functions in their organizations. Innovation isn’t the work of only scientists, engineers, or marketers; it’s the work of an entire business and its leadership.
Ten Types Of Innovation Summary
We’ve used the Ten Types with firms large and small since we first developed the framework in 1998. The most cursory experience our clients will have with the framework goes something like this: