Process of Innovation … 9 Mistakes That Can Kill It

On a December day in 1968, an engineer named Douglas Engelbart, launched a revolution. The focus was not a Cold War adversary or even a resource rich banana republic, but rather to “augment human intellect.” Examining this work helped us consider mistakes that can kill the process of innovation.

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His presentation that day would be so consequential that it is now called The Mother of All Demos. Two of those in attendance, Bob Taylor and Alan Kay would go on to develop Engelbart’s ideas into the Alto, the first truly personal computer. Later, Steve Jobs would take many elements of the Alto to create the Macintosh.

Process of innovation
Process of innovation.

So who deserves credit? Engelbart for coming up with the idea? Taylor and Kay for engineering solutions around it? Jobs for creating a marketable product that made an impact on the world? Strong arguments can be made for each, as well as for many others not mentioned here. The truth is that there were many mistakes that could have killed the efforts of this cool innovation.

Here are nine we need to consider:


Assuming all innovation is the same size 

When most people think about innovation, they think about startups. And certainly, new firms like Uber, Airbnb, and Space X can transform markets. But others such as IBM, Procter and Gamble and 3M have managed to stay on top for decades. This happens even as competitors rise to challenge them and then, when markets shift, disappear just as quickly into oblivion.

It is true that small, agile firms can move fast, but larger enterprises have the luxury of going slow. They have loyal customers and an abundance of resources.

They can see past the next hot trend and invest for the long term. There’s a huge difference between hitting on the next big thing and developing it consistently, generation after generation.


Assuming innovation is a single event 

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, but it wasn’t until 15 years later, in 1943, that the miracle drug came into widespread use. Alan Turing came up with the idea of a universal computer in 1936, but it wasn’t until 1946 that one was built and not until the 1990’s that computers began to impact productivity statistics.

We tend to think of innovation as arising from a single brilliant flash of insight, but the truth is that it is a drawn out process involving the discoveries of many insights, the many components of the engineering solution and then the transformation of an industry or field. That’s almost never achieved by one person or even within one organization.


Not asking the right questions

Too often, we treat innovation as a monolith, as if every problem was the same, but that’s clearly not the case. In laboratories and factory floors, universities and coffee shops, or even over a beer after work, people are checking out better ways to do things. There is no monopoly on creative thought.

But that leads us to a problem: How should we go about innovation? Should we hand it over to the guys with white lab coats? An external partner? A specialist in the field? Crowdsource it? What we need is a clear framework for making decisions.

The best way to start is by asking the right questions:  (1) How well is the problem defined? and (2) How well is the domain defined? Once you’ve asked those framing questions, you can start defining a sensible way to approach the problem using the innovation matrix.

Clearly, no one method can suffice. Look at any great innovator, whether it is Apple, Tesla or Google, and you’ll find a portfolio of strategies. So the first step toward solving a difficult problem is asking the questions you need to define your approach. To paraphrase Voltaire, if you need to solve a problem, first define your terms.


innovation process model
Innovation process model.

Process of innovation … not considering idea combinations 

The reason that Fleming was unable to bring Penicillin to market was that, as a biologist, he lacked many of the requisite skills.  It wasn’t until a decade later that two chemists, Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, picked up the problem and were able to synthesize penicillin. Even then, it took people with additional expertise in fermentation and manufacturing to turn it into the miracle cure we know today.

This isn’t the exception, but the norm. Darwin’s theory of natural selection borrowed ideas from Thomas Malthus, an economist, and Charles Lyell, a geologist. Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA was not achieved by simply plowing away at the lab, but by incorporating discoveries in biology, chemistry and x-ray diffraction to inform their model building.

Great innovation almost never occurs within one field of expertise but is almost invariably the product of synthesis across domains.


Not employing open innovation 

When Microsoft launched Kinect for the Xbox in 2010, it quickly became the hottest consumer device ever, selling 8 million units in just the first two months.  Almost immediately, hackers began altering its capabilities to do things that Microsoft never intended.  Instead of asking them to stop, it embraced the hackers, quickly releasing a software development kit to help them along.

Like Microsoft, many firms today are embracing open innovation to expand capabilities. Cisco outfoxed Lucent not by developing technology itself, but by smartly acquiring startups. Procter & Gamble has found great success with its Connect and Develop program, and platforms like Innocentive allow firms to expose thorny problems to a more diverse skill set.

innovation process management
Innovation process management.

As was the case with Alexander Fleming and penicillin, most firms will find that solving their most important problems will require skills and expertise they don’t have. That means that, at some point, they will need to utilize partners and platforms to go beyond their internal capabilities of technology and talent.


Forgetting about new business models 

When Chester Carlson perfected his invention in 1938, he tried to market it to more than 20 companies but had no takers. It was simply far too expensive for the market. Finally, in 1946, Joe Wilson, President of the Haloid Company, came up with the idea of leasing the machines instead of selling them outright. The idea was a rousing success, and in 1948 the firm changed its name to Xerox.

The tricky thing about disruptive innovations is that they rarely fit into existing business models and so the value they create isn’t immediately clear. Kodak made money by selling the film, so was slow to adopt the digital cameras that the company had itself invented. Yahoo’s business was focused on keeping users on its site, so passed on the chance to acquire Google.

It’s not just products that we have to innovate, but business models as well


Not using the ‘one-off’ rule 

Many people think of innovation as discarding the old to make room for the new, but as Bain & Co.’s Chris Zook points out in Profit From The Core, smart companies realize that the bulk of their profits will come from current lines of business.

Take Google for example. Yes, it pursues radical innovation, like self-driving cars, at itsGoogle X unit, but its continual improvement of its core search business is what made it the world’s most valuable company. That’s why Google, as well as many other innovative companies, follow the 70/20/10 rule.

The premise of the rule is simple. Focus 70% of your resources in improving existing technology (i.e. search), 20% of adjacent markets (i.e. Gmail, Google Drive, etc.) and 10% on completely new markets (i.e. self-driving cars).


Forgetting about synergy of numbers

It’s no accident that the people who would make the vision Engelbart presented at “The Mother of All Demos” a reality attended the event and knew Engelbart personally. In those days, it was difficult, if not impossible, to actively collaborate across time and space. Today, however, we can use platforms to access ecosystems of technology, talent, and information.

Take Apple’s App Store. It is, of course, a highly effective way for Apple’s network of customers to access functionality on their phones, but it also allows the firm to access the talents of literally millions of developers. It’s hard to imagine any single enterprise, no matter how efficient or well organized, pulling off that kind of scale.

In a networked world, the surest path to success is not acquiring and controlling assets, but widening and deepening connections.


Lacking the best collaboration

 When we look back to the great innovations of the past, it hard not to wonder how it could’ve gone differently. What if chemists had picked up on Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in weeks rather than years? How many lives could have been saved? Was there no one who could have helped develop Engelbart’s vision of the personal computer outside of Northern California?

And now, the problems we seek to solve are significantly more complex than in earlier generations. That’s one reason why the journal Nature recently noted that the average scientific paper today has four times as many authors as one did in 1950. At the same time, knowledge has been democratized. A teenager with a smartphone today has more access to information than a highly trained specialist a generation ago.

That’s why now collaboration itself is becoming a competitive advantage.

Take a slightly broader view, and it becomes clear that innovation today goes far beyond research labs, Silicon Valley pitch meetings, and large corporate initiatives. We all have something to offer and can add to the world’s knowledge in a way that may differ in degree, but not in kind, to the giants of the past.


The bottom line


Don’t let what you know … limit what you can imagine or maybe even dream. Confidence never comes from having all the answers. It comes from being prepared for, and open to, new ideas and questions. Prepare your mind for new ways of thinking. Only then will you take advantage of all the business lessons learned for the best innovative ideas.




Need some help in improving the innovation process for you and your staff? Innovative ideas to help the differentiation with your toughest competitors? Or maybe ways to innovate new products and services?


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Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of business. Find him on G+Twitter, and LinkedIn.  


Digital Spark Marketing will stretch your thinking and your ability to adapt to change.  We also provide some fun and inspiration along the way. Call us for a free quote today. You will be amazed how reasonable we will be.


More reading on creativity and innovation from Digital Spark Marketing’s Library:

Learn How to Think What No One Else Thinks

Generating Ideas by Convergent Thinking

Amazon and Managing Innovation … the Jeff Bezos Vision

The Secrets to Building an Innovative Culture


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Process of Innovation … 9 Mistakes That Can Kill It