I was thinking recently about the common road blocks to innovation that we hit. I’d like to know what other ones people have hit and maybe some ways to get around them. Here are the ones I’ve encountered most:
Competitor bias: My competition hasn’t created this product, therefore there is no market for it. This is the biggest by far. Everyone tells me how risky it is to be first to market with a new idea. To me, it always seems as those risks are over-stated to continue the comfy status-quo.
Not invented here: At every job I’ve had, I’ve heard marketing, engineering and everybody else look a competitor’s product and laugh, “Why’d they do that!?!”. Not every idea from outside an organization is a bad one.
Technology bias: This is the way we’ve done this before, this is the way we do it again. I think this is a close cousin to Not Invented Here. It’s amazing to me that people would rather stick with a complicated and expensive design than simplify and lower costs, but they toss up this barrier to it.
Process blindness: Every process for discovering market opportunity has limits. Often people fail to recognize those limits and either miss out on opportunity, or jump into a limited opportunity with both feet.
Been there! These are the strategies I typically take. When all else fails, do your best to influence the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion)
Response: “isn’t this awesome! We have found some white space in the market. We better do this before the competition realizes the same opportunity. Chances are they probably already have something in development. It would be a huge risk not to get something going right away and express it through our system. I’d hate to be the one to tell the CEO in 12 months when our competior launches something like this that we could have been a first mover in the market!” Use the fear of risk to the advantage of the new idea. The new idea isn’t yours, it is inevitable and the only risk is in not following through.
Response: “You don’t see it? Wow, no wonder they were able to do this. Obviously they know things we don’t. Don’t admit to anyone else you don’t understand why they did this, it is insanely obvious.” Flip the incredulous ness from the competitors product into the naysayers.
Response: "exactly, this is why we are getting trounced. We are doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Einstein defined that as the definition of insanity. We will establish a process that looks to do thing differently every time and this will be the pilot program. Please prepare 4 proposals by tommorow on how we do this. " make the business as usual mentality understood as the root of poor performance.
Response: the purpose of a process is to reach a desired result, if the desired result is not being achieved, the process is incorrect. Almost everything special, unique, memorable, and desirable in this world was created by a keen sense of intuition on an insight, confidence, and a lot of hard work.
Those are a few of the tacts I usually take. The most important thing is to understand that while each of these attitudes that Raymond identified are hard to work with, they are typically held by good people who are just scared to make a mistake. The ironic thing is that very fear leads to more mistakes. I try to make them decide to get out of their comfort zone by recognizing that staying in it is the biggest risk of all and that going on record turning down a good idea just to feel fuzzy for a minute is suicide. You are helping them out by helping them to realize this. By deciding to pursue an innovative idea, the team will be heroes. If it works out, it will be amazing, if it fails, we will have learned so much that we can put into the next program.
Personal experience bias When a person with influence decides that some particular problem is not worth solving, because s/he never experienced it personally. That any attempt at solving it will add cost and no value.
Analyzing fatigue: when people have done so much user studies but failed to analyze the data that they don’t see the forest for all the trees. Instead of seeing the opportunities, they shoot it down with “no users said they wanted that particular feature”. Paying no mind that it doesn’t exist so they have had no chance of even trying it.
Thanks. We all deal with this stuff everyday. I’m sure there are other ways, and probably better ways, of encouraging our coworkers to pursue more innovative solutions. These are just a few mechanisms I’ve developed over the years that have worked in varying degrees at time. You wins some, you loose some. I try to keep my eye on a net gain while giving a few here and there.
This is a huge culprit at every turn, for everyone in the process. We were in a meeting reviewing a few detail options when someone said “I like it better this way”… this person was very far from the user we were addressing, so my response was “I didn’t realize you were a 14 year old girl! That is fantastic to have you on the team… right, you are not a 14 year old girl so how you personally prefer it, while interesting, is not the input we need. We need to do our best to understand how she prefers it.”
As designers we get caught in this all of the time. It can be hard to separate our personal, needs, preferences, taste, and bias, from those of the user we are trying to address. When in that situation, which is more often than not (as a designer, our tastes tend not to be main stream) I try my best to develop something that fits the user, but is still something I am personally proud of. The search for the highest possible common denominator vs the lowest.
Where I work we call this analysis paralysis. The old Henry Ford quote works well here “If I asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” The purpose of research in our process is not to take a direct quote from someone and turn it into a product, or focus test out so many unique features that you are left with mediocrity. The purpose of research is to fuel the product development process. To inspire insights, to figure out what needs are through synthesis. The key is always in the synthesis of a wide array of inputs.
While I’m rambling, this reminds me that the smallest portion of the process of bringing good design to market is the actual doing good design part. The vast majority of it is the dance, convincing the brass to do something out of the companies traditional strike zone, working with engineering and manufacturing to transition the glimmer of a thought, into and idea, into a concept, into a prototype, into a manufacturable product.
One of the amazing tools in this dance happens to be a beautiful sketch. Over the past 15 years I’ve seen a hot sketch come into a room and silence an argument many times. People want to be excited about what they are a part of. A hot sketch, used appropriately to make a good idea come to life, can go a very long way.
It seems like there are two different sections of business being talked about here.
One is the business of innovation. A design company that is in the business of the new. There is a requirement for churning newness and showing innovation. The hot product studio shot shows up on the company portfolio page. What the market result actually is is a different story. If something new falls flat, there are other projects to balance, all overall good.
The second seems to be design inside a company whose business is to sell widgets. Perhaps that organization is not focused on constant newness, but selling things that maybe sold into markets where newness and novelty have a percentage value to tried and true. If there is no support in the sales structure for something new, then any new innovation or idea will likely fall flat on its face. Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan, it falls right back into the lap of the original promoter.
This is the attitude of a non-market leader, with no intentions to take the front runner spot. I am not saying that is a bad thing, just a statement of fact. Not everyone wins the Tour de France, some draft on others, and unlike the Tour, in business second place is a place. The desire to win and be new has to come from the top of the company, not the designers.
My experience is similar but different in some cases. I show the ideas internally a year or two ahead of when they are introduced by the market leader. They are rejected as too unusual when they are coming from inside, yet when the competitor introduces them they are embraced by marketing and sales as something that has to be done as quickly as possible. This is the majority of marketing departments that are following the companies that take the bigger risks.
My most recent experience has been “if that (technology) was possible, how come the big companies have not done it??” The answer here was to slowly push each envelope and demonstrate that new things can work and be accepted by the market. Once the ability has been demonstrated on a smaller scale, the stake holders are prepared to take bigger leaps and risks.
That is the power of a sketch, it cannot be argued except by another sketch, and the vast majority of people cannot sketch.
Capital ($) is the beautiful girl at the dance, she gets to pick and choose, be frivolous or cruel but must always protect her “reputation” and is there by a bit timid. This timidity can change for a couple of reasons, one where a new “man” at the dance has captured the adoration of the other belle’s and a competition ensues from the belles for his attention. The other time she is no longer timid is when a tale of adventure, romance, and riches beyond count enthrall the “belle” to the point she looses the patina of caution and caves into her base desires.
My father was an exec at a major US company for over 30 years. He retired a while back and amazingly he kept all of his manager/director training materials and notes which he recently passed on to me. It’s a huge leather binder of random managerial notes, but the first page in there was very relevant.
It is a photocopy that reads:
“How To Kill Ideas”
(In seven words or less)
Don’t be ridiculous
It costs too much
That’s beyond our responsibility
We don’t have the time
We’re too small for it
We’ve never done it before
We’ll be the laughing stock
You’re two years ahead of your time
Can’t teach an old dog new tricks
We’re doing the best we can
Has anyone else ever tried it?
We tried that before
It can’t be done
It’s too radical a change
That’s not our problem
It isn’t in the budget
We did alright without it
We’re not ready for that
Too hard to sell
Let’s get back to reality
It won’t work in our industry
If it was good we’d already be doing
I have heard all of these used in meetings at one point or another, sometimes by the “innovators” themselves, but I usually take it as a challenge and look for a way to prove them wrong, it’s fun.
So, I asked my Dad when I found this if he had it so he would have a better grasp on how to shoot down ideas, he laughed and said no, but I know there’s a story there, towards the end of his career he was working with engineers…
As a design company for hire going on 13 years I have heard the following three reasons at just about all companies that have interviewed me:
We do things here nobody else can do.
Money doesn’t grow on trees.
In one memorable day I visited two companies, mild competitors. They showed me surprisingly similar new product development research, both citing my #1 statement. It was a real battle not to violate all NDA’s and admit I just saw similar 3 hours ago at an almost identical company. Imagine what your competitors are doing in any of other major technology cluster markets around North America? Of all the innovation killing statements, this one of absolute arrogance seems universal and the most personally disappointing. On the positive side, these companies projects are always the longest resulting in maximum billable hours.
The other two are both related and unrelated, depending on the company. Some companies kill innovation because their R&D budget is maximized. Others have budget but are not allowed to hire.
The most disappointingly crass was a company that lost a huge business because when tasked with an innovation request came back to requester with a demand for preorders. Not only did they lose new project but existing project was pulled and sent elsewhere, and I didn’t disagree with the draconian action. To be mildly less generic, it involved a significant redevelopment of those airport personal check-in kiosks, IBM the integrater-owner-operator wanted some rather interesting redesign from their existing manufacturer post Sept.11. The manufacturer lost a very lucrative contract (and consequently I lost the ID and engineering) due to their anti-innovation timidity. They didn’t just want preorders, they requested a schedule of preorders for 3 years minimum!
I see why Yo is so successful now. I need to practice those responses in a mirror every night.
Novelty Blindness: It’s re-inventing the wheel but not actually making any improvement on it. Engineers often dive on this. Blow a huge wad of cash and the product completely fails in the market because while other people copied the 80% that was proven and spent a little on improving the other 20%, this company chose to simply create 100% and end up with an outdated product at 4 times the cost.
That is a good one Ray. I have noticed this in engineering driven cultures as well. I think a lot of organizations misinterpret the difference between innovation and invention, which is somewhat related to this.
If it’s such a good idea, why aren’t other products with similar specs doing better? This one infuriates me and it’s related to ‘it’s been done before’. The product isn’t a feature. It’s not the finish. It’s not the function. Quoting Richard Sachs, the bike is the bike. Just because our competitor tried feature X and it didn’t work, it doesn’t make it a bad idea.