Monday, August 24, 2015

The Axes of Innovation

Are your innovation teams struggling for new ideas?  Are they stuck with the current paradigm?  The problem may be that they are pursuing the wrong axis of innovation. 

Technology and innovation in one field creates opportunities for innovation in other fields.   These innovations can then lead to opportunities for more innovations, sometimes even back into the field of the original innovation.  The technology of the integrated circuit, while innovative in itself, was the catalyst for massive innovation in countless other industries, products, and processes.   Innovations in materials science and precision on manufacturing equipment that were enabled by integrated circuits; were then used to innovate micro-circuits. 

Opportunities for innovation that did not exist even a few years ago may now exist because of the innovation that has happened in other industries.  Let’s look at an example.  The first commercially available smartphone was an IBM product marketed by BellSouth in 1994.  The only apps it had were phone, fax, email, calendar, and calculator.  Five years later, there were a variety of PDAs on the market with Blackberry and Palm being the dominant players.  This now had operating systems to run programs.  In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone and Android phones were on the market the following year.  Fast forward to today and the innovation of the smartphone has opened the door to countless other innovative product and services.   As of today there are over 1.5 million apps available at the Apple app stove and 1.6 million available for Android users.  Many of these apps represent innovative products and services.   Without the smartphone as an enabler, the innovation down one of the three axes of innovation would not have been possible.

So let’s talk about the axes of innovation.  When your innovation teams are struggling, they need to look at the capabilities of other industries to determine how to leverage that capability onto your products and services.  In particular they should be looking to transform your products and services in at least one of three innovation directions – size, speed, and quality.  These are the three axes of innovation.

The Axis of Size

Depending upon your product, dramatically smaller or larger may be the needed innovation.  Although the use of steel had been around for thousands of years, it was the innovation of the Bessemer process in 1855 that enabled mass production.  With that innovation, steel became the dominant construction metal enabling further innovations in railroads, ship-building, and building construction.  Likewise, the miniaturization of electronics has led to numerous innovations in telecommunication and personal appliances.  

Challenge your innovation teams to find the enabling the technologies that will allow you to increase or reduce the size of your products and services by an order of magnitude.  What new technology allows you be ten times bigger or ten times smaller?  What new product and service opportunities does that create?    

The Axis of Speed

Another axis of innovation that will transform an industry is speed.  Reducing the time for a customer to receive products or services by an order of magnitude can transform an industry and create huge opportunities.  One obvious example of that is Amazon and the experience of buying online.  Instead of the old mail-order catalogues and waiting weeks for delivery; you can now order on Amazon and receive your product the next day - even faster if you are ordering a book that can be downloaded to your Kindle.  The advances in communication technology, transportation technology, and logistics have created opportunities for innovation that are well received in our “Want it Now!” culture.  This holds true as well for larger custom-designed and built equipment.  The innovative approach of “configure-to-order” has reduced the lead time in some equipment categories by an order of magnitude.

Challenge your innovation teams to find the enabling technology that allows you to deliver your products or services either instantaneously or within a fraction of the current time.  Can you provide some level of instant gratification to your customer? Can you do things remotely in the background and provide immediate service?  Can you deliver it overnight?   What product or service opportunities does that create?

The Axis of Quality

The third axis of innovation is the hardest to quantify.  Therefore, there are more opportunities for innovations along this axis and more risk that the innovation will be unnoticed or unappreciated.  The attributes of quality vary with the user, the product, and the application.  For some it is accuracy and precision.  For some it is durability and reliability.  For some it is aesthetics and user interface.  Every customer will have a different set of attributes and priorities about quality.  But there are some typical patterns among user groups.  Your marketing people should be able to provide insight with respect to what constitutes “high quality” for different customer segments.

Once the definition of quality is established, enabling technologies can be identified.  For automobile drivers, the definition of quality has changed over the years from reliability to performance to comfort.  As the definition changes, the automobiles that are considered high quality have changed the types of features they are adding and advertising.  In addition, the expectation of what constitutes “high quality” is often impacted by the customer experience in other industries.  Drivers of “high quality” automobiles now expect to have dashboard displays of safety and performance data.  Fortunately, the sensor technology and display technologies have made this a straight-forward innovation.

Challenge your innovation teams to find enabling technologies that would transform the definition of “high quality” for your products and services.   How can you improve the ease of use in the customer application?  Can you be ten times more accurate or reliable?  What product or service opportunities does that create?

I have focused on innovation that is related to your existing business model or innovation within your industry or product lines.  Most companies with innovation teams are asking those teams to create new products and services.  There are innovations that are based upon discovering new scientific principles.  These are usually the focus of academics and research laboratories.  These might be some of the enabling technologies your innovation teams will use.  But these innovations rely upon the scientific discovery process, not commercially focused innovation teams.

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