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Assumptions of Innovation

Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice
© Walt Disney Studios

Innovation is Magic…Right?

In the short animated film, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey Mouse assumed the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice. The introduction to the film told the story of an apprentice who, being ambitious and bright, decided he would start practicing the Sorcerer’s best magic formulas before learning how to control them.

One day the sorcerer asked his apprentice to carry water to fill a cauldron. The apprentice had a brilliant idea to use the sorcerer’s magic to bring a broom to life to carry the water for him. At first, everything worked out great, however the apprentice forgot the spell that would stop the broom from carrying the water. He soon discovered that he had started something he couldn’t predict and things quickly got out of control.

It seems many companies today think that innovation is magic. To be honest when companies use emerging technologies correctly in their product development, the results can seem magical. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, some companies believe that if they just use the magic of innovation to create the next generation of products it will solve all of their problems. However, as the apprentice discovered if you don’t have a good understanding of innovation things can quickly get out of control. Before a company jumps feet first into innovation, the organization should be aware of the assumptions about innovation and drawbacks. For example, according to Doblin, research shows that less than 4 percent of innovation projects succeed. Why are the failure rates so high?

96% of Innovation Projects Fail

With a failure rate of 96 percent it should be apparent that very few organizations know how to make the process of innovation a reliable and repeatable practice. “More often than not, companies that stumble in their conquest of innovation have failed to adopt practices that encourage collaborative ideation and development,” according to an article by Deloitte University Press entitled “How to Innovate the Silicon Valley Way” I believe one of the key reasons companies fail has to do with their assumptions of innovation.

The 4 Assumptions of Innovation

There are a lot of assumptions that people have surrounding innovation but for this article I would like to discuss four basic assumptions put forth by Vijay Kumar in his book 101 Design Methods:

  1. Innovation as it is currently practiced is good enough.
  2. Innovation is for executives.
  3. Innovation is for practitioners.
  4. “Innovation Planning” is an oxymoron.

Innovation as It is Currently Practiced is Good Enough

Kumar suggests that, innovation as it is currently practiced is good enough, is a common assumption and the reality of the situation is that, “current innovation practices don’t reliably deliver breakthroughs.” I believe this has to do with the way companies approach the product development process. More often than not our current processes are designed to provide incremental features to existing products. Those processes break down when companies attempt to explore innovative solutions to undefined needs in rapidly changing marketplaces. Due to the ambiguous nature of opportunities in emerging marketplaces; existing tools need to be evaluated based on the need that is trying to be fulfilled. In short, if the only tool you have in your tool belt is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Innovation is for Executives

Another assumption is that innovation is for executives. This assumption relates to the commonly held belief that executives are primarily responsible for the strategy and direction a company takes therefore they must own innovation initiatives as well. In truth, I have found it is the people doing the day-to-day work that often develop innovative ideas with the products they are developing. However, as Kumar states, “they need structures and processes to help them plan and define innovation.” When a team has made the decision to move forward on an innovative initiative, it must be defined with a well thought out plan on how to bring the product to the market place.

Innovation is for Practitioners

While the seed of innovative ideas often resides with the marketers, designers, researchers and engineers that develop the products for a company; to be successful practitioners must work with executives. According to Kumar, “The designers and technologist developing new offerings must not only know how to innovate on a tactical level, they must also comprehend the strategic objectives and wider implications of their work.” For a product to be truly innovative in an emerging marketplace, practitioners and executives must both have an understanding of the strategic and tactical business decisions. They must work together to develop a plan.

“Innovation Planning” is an Oxymoron

Product development often involves documents detailing the business requirements, specifications and objectives outlining the scope, measures and criteria of success. The commonly held belief that innovative products are produced purely out of “out-of-box thinking” which leads to the final assumption of “innovation planning” is an oxymoron. Very few companies can afford to invest large amounts of time and money without a measure of control. For companies to be innovative, they must develop new and structured approaches.

Innovation isn’t magic, it’s a discipline. Asking a product team to be innovative without having the proper tools and processes in place will more than likely result in failure. In the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey Mouse was able to get the broom started to carry water but didn’t have a plan in place for the broom to stop. When the broom filled the cauldron to capacity and it began to overflow, the apprentice thought he could stop the broom by chopping the broom into pieces. His effort failed and he only created more instances of the broom which then proceeded to fill the cauldron further escalating the problem.

The apprentice was saved only through the intervention of the Sorcerer. The lesson learned is that before you move forward on an innovative initiative have a plan or you may find yourself in the position of having to hire an expensive expert to clean up the mess. As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

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