Don't squeeze from the middle

Member Article

Don’t Squeeze from the Middle: Unconventional Innovation

Many businesses identify innovation as a strategic concern, but struggle to take the first step in doing so successfully. Often, we struggle to pin down what innovation means and how you can encourage it. For me, innovation has one important property distinguished from other research and development practices: innovation is emergent. An innovative concept is not just the sum of its parts.

Innovation is Simple, but not Straightforward

For example, consider that most useful apparatus for the large garden: the mower-vac. You probably have a lawn-mower. Perhaps you have a separate vacuum for leaves and trimmings. Why not put the two together and create a mower-vac? I can’t deny the smart design thinking - or the engineering needed to make it effective - but I don’t see compelling innovation there.

On the other hand, the rightly famous Dyson bladeless fan is a great example of innovation. The jump from a centuries old principle to something completely new is surprising and certainly not a linear process.

How, then, do you find a way forward, hoping to be innovative?

Overturning Conventions

I would like to suggest two simple approaches to get you started.

The first is to challenge the regular habits of your business head-on. As a thought-experiment, turn your model of how the world works completely upside down and see what interesting ideas fall out its pockets.

To take a trivial example, consider the humble toothpaste tube. When I was a child, we had regular rows about “who squeezed the tube from the middle.” Getting the most from the tube was a minor obsession.

We even read rumours that one member of the British royal family had a valet squeeze out the toothpaste for him.

To solve the surprisingly aggravating problem of the squished middle, manufacturers simply turned the problem upside down. Tubes are now made of flexible plastic and stand on their caps. Gravity takes the place of Jeeves.

A more widely relevant example would be how pricing has developed in the software business. Rather than expensive and complex licensing agreements, in the 1980s and 1990s some groups turned software pricing on its head and started to give their software away. Industry analysts thought it little more than a gimmick. However in the new century it is quite commercially viable to offer software at no cost, charge commercially for support, servicing and consulting.

From Sweet Spot to Blind Spot

The free software example suggests a second important method for the innovator: to reconcile opposites.

In business software - my own particular field - we used to talk about providing managers with an “information sweet spot.” Our aim was to deliver “the right data in the right format at the right time.” Better decisions would surely follow. How could they not? So developers cleaned and structured data, clarifying ambiguities, removing supposed errors, narrowing the scope to just the problem in hand.

In terms of technology and technique, “Business Intelligence,” as we called it, was a great success. Most every major company deployed dashboards and analytics to hit the information sweet spot and improve their decision support.

This technical success had a bitter side-effect. Every sweet spot created a blind spot. In focusing an executive’s data and attention on the problem in hand we reduced their peripheral vision and situational awareness.

Like it or not, the world is ambiguous and full of errors. Issues outside our immediate concern affect us greatly. Those duplicate credit card swipes - when a customer tries to complete a sale with multiple cards until now works - may be errors for the sales system, but useful indicators for fraud detection. Those contracts signed just after the end of the month may not be in the quarterly report, but management needs to know about them.

From Support to Discovery

The answer to this dilemma - the reconciliation of opposites - came with a new generation of innovative software, often described as Data Discovery. Where Business Intelligence harnessed high-powered back-office databases to focused specific data to support your decisions, Data Discovery took advantage of advances in desktop software to enable executives to explore and discover, including all those areas in their peripheral vision.

Data Discovery could still cover the sweet spot, but by giving up some centralized control, users could turn their heads and see past the blind spot too.

Starting Fresh

You will not find innovation easy. It takes commitment and some courage - frequent failures characterize many a truly innovative project. However, innovation is a skill that can be learned and practiced. You can start with your conventional ideas, turning them on their heads. Keep an open mind and you will be surprised at what shakes out.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Donald Farmer .

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