Utilize Patterns to Catalyze Innovation

photograph by Paco CTInnovation is clearly not for everyone. Many companies pride themselves on doing things the tried and true way, or on executing perfectly, rather than doing something new and bold. There are, however, not many surer paths to success than lightning-in-a-bottle innovation. Well managed, innovative R&D can lead a company to amazing technological breakthroughs, market dominance, and financial success. Poorly managed attempts at innovation, however, can take the company down a much uglier path – Think: New Coke. So, how do you harness the creative potential of you customers and employees to innovate for success?

As a product manager, I am constantly saying that we need to “ask the customer what they want.” I use personas during product design sessions and rarely a day goes by that I do not interact with a customer. I am an advocate of usability testing and beta programs. I thrive on customer feedback, but I often forget that you cannot rely upon the customer to innovate. Let me say that again – you cannot rely upon your customer to innovate for you. Countless studies have shown that customers simply do not make the leap required to be truly innovative. This is not a knock on your customers. Doubtless, they are smart folk with the capacity to think outside the box. When they innovate, however, they will be doing so in their own line of business – not yours. My own take on this is that innovation requires a certain amount of mental steeping in the problem domain. Your customers simply don’t spend enough time dedicating their gray-matter to your business. Get them together for a ½ day focus group and they are more likely to suggest small modifications to your existing product than they are to come up with something truly innovative. If you want to innovate, you’re going to have to do it yourself. The good news is that, unless you run a one-man show, you are surrounded by smart folks who spent a great deal of their time contemplating the problems that exist in your business, and they’ve got some killer ideas; the trick to successful innovation is harnessing them.

Google gets this, which is why they have famously provided their employees with “20-percent time.” Many of the successful new product released by Google over the years are products of this 20-percent time, including Gmail and Adsense. IBM has done something similar with their “THINK Fridays.” Try suggesting this tactic to your management, however, and you will likely meet resistance not seen since you suggested that the company provide only decaf in the break room. Why? The truth is that your management doesn’t believe that you and your fellow employees will work on anything that might benefit the company. An argument against 20-percent time that I’ve been guilty of presenting in the past is – “hey, that we’re a small company, we can’t afford to focus our resources on anything but our core product.” The truth is just the opposite – we can’t afford not to have our resources focused on innovating.

OK, problem solved right? Let your team take one day a week and work on whatever floats their boat. Maybe attach some stipulation that says it must, in some way, relate to your business and that, of course, products of this 20-percent time belong to the company. Then just sit back and wait for the light bulbs to start popping up over their heads. Pick a few, build ‘em, market ‘em, and retire young. Simple, right? How’s that Hertz commercial go – not exactly. The truth is that your employees are likely to go to the opposite extreme as your customers. Rather than suggest minor tweaks to existing products, they’ll come up with often brilliant, but way-out left-field ideas that for any number of reasons cannot be monetized by the company. You’re not trying to start a think tank. You want ideas that can quickly be turned into profit. So what’s a good capitalist to do? Well, I believe that there is a way out of this predicament – a way to find a balance between ho-hum minor product changes and far-out ideas that are “someone else’s business” – it’s mixing 20-percent time with a concept called TRIZ.

TRIZ (pronounced trees) is a formalized process for creative problem solving and is credited as the methodology behind thousands of patents from Fortune 500 companies including Proctor & Gamble, Boeing, and Philips Electronics. Genrich AltshullerBased on work by Russian engineer Genrich Altshuller, TRIZ provides a set of patterns which can be applied to virtually any product or service to catalyze innovation. To arrive at these patterns, Altshuller analyzed and categorized patented inventions for over twenty years, seeking patterns across the various inventions. This effort eventually led him to his “40 Principals of Invention.” Since 1969, many other brilliant inventors and process engineers have added to this rich methodology with derivative works.

TRIZ is very pragmatic. Rather than requiring great leaps of thought to invent, TRIZ relies upon the application of one or more of the principals in order to remove technical contradictions; e.g. how can an object grow in size, but not increase in weight. By having developers leverage principals of TRIZ, you can bound their creative juices in a way that is much more likely to yield salable ideas.

Jacob Goldenberg, Roni Horowitz, Amnon Levav, and David Mazursky, the authors of “Creativity in Product Innovation”, have created a derivative work based upon TRIZ that they call “generic innovation patterns.” To illustrate how TRIZ works, let’s take one of their patterns, Subtraction, and see how it might work in practice. The subtraction pattern instructs the engineer to remove important features from a product. In so doing, they are faced with the need to replace that feature, live without it, or require other features to perform double-duty. Consider your standard PC. It has a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and maybe some speakers. The subtraction pattern would encourage you to remove the keyboard, and mouse. How then would you get user input; perhaps via voice recognition or touchscreen. This is an incredibly simple example, but it illustrates the point. Rather than sending your engineers into the lab carte blanche, have them start with your existing product and a set of innovative patterns. What comes out of the lab is more likely to be salable to your existing market, by your existing sales team.


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I came across a strategy journal article years ago, citation long forgotten, on the need for heterogeneous and homogeneuous sensing networks.

As we gain customers and listen to our customer base, that customer base become homogenous. Those with other ideas move on to other products. That customer base is always similar in risk tolerance, and over time that customer base becomes increasingly less risk tolerant.

That herterogeneous network consists of people outside our customer base. Ideally, they are all in different fields, and are spread out all over the world. It is this network that will sense the fads, the trends, new ideas, and the inbound concepts. It is these people that will help you lead the the customers, while you listen to them.

Listening to your customer will take you to the end of the road pretty quick, but then what? You really want to go down that road slowly.

And, you do not want to radically innovate more than once in the product lifecyle. That once is when you launch version 1.0. Innovate in another product and cross sell.

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