Make Innovation More Reliable, Predictable & Pervasive
Sports cars are fast, beautiful, exotic and, of course, designed to win races. For many years, Ferrari and Lamborghini were accepted as the fastest and most furious super-cars money could buy. That changed around the time Acura came out with the NSX, a sports car that could do what the other high-end machines could do, but at a much lower price tag. Additionally, and more importantly, the Acura was a consistently highly reliable and quality car compared to its Italian counterparts. The exotic Italian super-cars enjoyed their run as marginally reliable machines until Acura raised the standard. After their years of success, the Italians had to reinvent themselves, which they did after about a decade of reluctant improvements.
Fast forward a couple of decades and the story gets more interesting. Recently, according to USA Today, Acura stopped production on the NSX because of various issues with emissions and safety regulations. Even more significant, Acura and others now make cars that are as “powerful and sophisticated” as the NSX, but that can be bought for a fraction of the NSX’s $90,000 price tag. That which revolutionized the sports car market (NSX) has been out-revolutionized by newcomers and advancing innovation. This is the story of innovation – as it creates a wave, it is outdone by another wave, and another wave and so on.
Today’s Innovation Practices
Today’s innovation practices are comparable to the advent of the affordable and reliable sports car. The current cadre of innovation thought leaders is the Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars of the 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s. They have best-selling books, prestigious professorships and enviable centers for processing research and serving corporate clients. They are fast and furious.
Large, already-successful companies with money to spend hire innovation gurus to help them evolve strategically. The result of that relationship is then analyzed and presented to the public. When business executiveslearn about the success of Wal-Mart, Cisco or Dell– relative to others in their respective industries –they interpret that to mean these gurus can help them to become more innovative. At a minimum, companies believe these gurus to have the inside track on how the various market leaders became market leaders. Looking at the sports car corollary, it is true that the affordable, reliable sports car would not be what it is today without the heritage and influence of its less reliable, fast, stylish and expensive precursors.
It is time to raise the bar of innovation to one that is more repeatable, teachable, deployable, manageable and reliable. Just because intelligent people can make observations and see a trend does not mean they have a system for making innovations plentiful and commonplace. The aura of innovation remains one of rarefied air. This thinking seems to make sense, but it is flawed. The lack of innovation is more a function of complacency than of natural constraint. Unusual business success has always been a function of uncommon sense, not of common sense – and if common sense says innovation has to be rare, then common sense wrong.
Coordinate: Accelerate, Brake and Corner
The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) is the Acura of innovation relative to the Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It is the answer to the evident lack of quality and reliability in the way most companies go about reinventing themselves. Fortunately, TRIZ is here, and systematic innovation is possible. With TRIZ, companies have a way of improving innovation build quality, and they also have a way to make innovation more reliable, predictable and pervasive.
Continuing on the topic of race cars, companies have to perform three functions to be successful. One, they have to accelerate. Two, they have to brake. Three, they have to corner. If a car has any chance of winning, it has to perform all three of these functions better than the others. Yet as important as these functions are, what underlies them? What is the most basic and crucial aspect of winning a race? The perfect coordination of accelerating, braking and cornering that wins the race – all the systems and components of a car converge on these three aspects of success. But there is something more fundamental, and that is the ability of each tire to grip the road. It is the coordinated, optimized traction of four patches of rubber as they meet the road that determines how well a car can accelerate, brake and corner to win a race.
Four Cornerstones to Innovation
It is this same traction a company seeks when it sets out to make innovation common and reliable. This is the high-level formula by which a company transitions from common sense to uncommon sense when it comes to innovation. This is the point of differentiation between conducting business as usual and conducting business as exceptional. For a corporation, the four patches where the innovation rubber meets the road are:
- Culture: the ability to shape innovative behavior and practices on a widespread scale
- Infrastructure: the technology and management supports that are necessary to grow and reinforce innovation
- Methodology: the standard roadmap for implementing innovation projects with a high probability of payoff
- Proficiency: the ability to ramp up world-class innovation capability in the shortest possible time.
Together, these four cornerstones form the critical success factors of innovation ROI (return on investment). As with race cars, each of these factors needs to be coordinated and balanced according to the demands of the day. To be agile, to stop or slow when necessary and to speed up around a hair-pin turn, a race car must distribute power between its four wheels to maximize grip. Similarly, a corporation must a company must constantly distribute power among the four elements of innovation to maximize ROI.
If any one element is missing or is not coordinated with the other elements under changing circumstances, the results are undesirable. At a minimum, the car loses the race and the corporation loses opportunity and money. At a maximum, the car spins out of control, flips over and crashes into a wall. The same is true for a corporation.
Ideally, innovation is an all-wheel-drive activity, with constant activity and load distribution around culture, infrastructure, methodology and proficiency. Although the current state of thought leadership addresses many aspects of all-wheel-drive success, some elements are lacking. TRIZ fills those gaps and brings us to a time at which innovation is much more than cool and notable, like a Ferrari. TRIZ ushers us into an age at which innovation is also reliable and accessible, like an Acura, while not losing its cool. With all-wheel-drive innovation, an organization allocates human capital, financial capital and technological resources in a coordinated way so it can maintain traction while accelerating, braking and cornering at high speeds. This is the ultimate goal of systematic innovation – run the course of business better and faster than your competitors so you get the bigger prize. To do this you have to see the road ahead. Race car drivers always know the course in full detail so they are not surprised by changes. Although businesses do not always have a good visualization of the course with all its unexpected twists and turns, systematic innovation provides a much better view of the course than what a business can see without it.
The View From Above
Imagine sitting at street level anticipating the start of a parade. You can see the floats come around the corner, but only one at a time. You do not know how many there are, how fast each is moving or the location of the last float. All you can do is react to the pace and progression of what is coming at you. This is the way most organizations approach innovation. They sit at street level and try to figure out what the market is doing by observing visible trends.
But what if you were in a helicopter? How much parade would you see then? You would see the first float, the last float and every float in between. You would know how fast each float is moving, when each stops and slows, and when the parade will end. Like the race car driver who knows every detail of the course ahead. Like the organization that takes itself out of the innovation Ferrari and puts itself into the innovation Acura. Like the TRIZ practitioner who flies not by the seat of his pants but by the horsepower and lift of an innovation flying machine.
Michael S. Slocum, Ph.D., is the principal and chief executive officer of The Inventioneering Company. Contact Michael S. Slocum at michael (at) inventioneeringco.com or visit http://www.inventioneeringco.com.