In hindsight, most new products or services that are created seem relatively obvious. Consumers and manufacturers will wonder – why didn’t we see this sooner? Most really interesting innovations, however, seem paradoxical and strange as they are being introduced, even though many will be accepted and become part of the norm. For example, consider cell phones. During the period from 1990 to about 1997, it seemed the goal of all cell phone manufacturers was to shrink the size of the cell phone – to make it an accessory hanging off the ear, or to perhaps even eventually place it in the ear canal, out of sight, out of mind. Enter the iPhone, and now the landrush is on in the opposite direction – cell phones as platforms for visual interaction and data presentation.
Which leads us to the question of how you frame your innovation activities. When you organize your innovation teams, and ask for innovation outcomes as new products, services or business models, what picture do you paint for them? Is the outcome you expect a simple “step” from the products and services available today, a modest “jump” from where expectations reside, or a significant “vault” to a completely new solution or market position? While these three represent human activities, the energy, experience and enthusiasm embedded in the different outcomes presents real opportunities and challenges. Without a clear definition, the vast majority of projects will be “step functions” because those are the fastest, safest and simplest, with the least amount of risk. However, that’s also exactly how all your competition views it as well. Each of you is “doubling down” on the same opportunity!
Work is defined as force over a distance, and that’s a great definition as a metaphor for innovation. How much work is required to create a new innovation? Some of that work is used up as force overcoming resistance and inertia. Since force is often limited, the less resistance that must be overcome, the more distance can be covered. Energy is required to do work, but energy is expensive and must be conserved. Therefore, we want to do the most work possible with the least energy, and that often leads to the work with the least resistance – the “low hanging” fruit.
You must create the energy necessary relative to the innovation outcome you desire. You can accomplish that by either ramping up investments and energy, or by reducing work and resistance. Most resistance is organizational, historical and cultural, so focusing on the rationale for the change, and communicating the potential outcomes while working to reduce risk is vital.
Most of us learn to walk about 12 months or so after birth, so taking a small step is something we understand. You don’t need a lot of training or practice to take a small step, in life or in business. There may be physical, emotional or cultural barriers to that small step, but once you’ve overcome those you or your business can make them. Jumping is something we learn soon after walking. Jumping is a bit more risky – it entails leaving the ground temporarily and may require clearing a modest obstacle. Jumping may require a bit more practice, but it’s something that many people can do especially well without a lot of experience, especially when the landing spot is understood and visible. Vaulting, on the other hand, is a completely new experience.
Vaulting is based on taking steps, jumping and at the same time thrusting oneself over a bar set very high. It combines all of the first steps, but introduces a lot of new technique and risk. No one vaults without extensive practice, to become good at what they do. There’s too much risk and uncertainty involved, yet good vaulters make it look easy. Vaulting adds a significant height component to the basic jump, compounding risk and uncertainty, yet with practice, good athletes can learn to vault.
The various forms of innovation outcome, sometimes described as incremental, breakthrough and disruptive, are similar, and from the description of experience and energy you can begin to see why so many innovations are simply step functions from existing knowledge. It takes energy and experience to jump, and even more to vault. Yet the rewards are found in the jumping and vaulting, while a new red ocean is formed when the majority simply step.
There’s one other component that’s vital to success beyond the step function, and that’s enthusiasm. Anyone can take small steps, given enough prodding, and some may even make small jumps. But no one vaults without confidence and enthusiasm. Innovation is the same way. Many people will generate incremental ideas, but only those with enthusiasm will imagine and have the energy to see truly new ideas through to fruition.
Much innovation success is based on where you start – the energy you create, the experiences you have or build and the enthusiasm you muster or find within your organization. What outcomes do you want? Low hanging fruit, while easy to grasp, is often a false peak. Too many people spy the same fruit and end up recreating the common competition pool, while far too many good opportunities go missing because they require more energy and experience than a simple step.
image credit: over hurdle image from bigstock
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.