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A few weeks ago, I published a post When Might it be OK to not Listen to the Customer with the inspiration coming from having just finished Innovator’s Dilemma by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen.  To oversimplify the summary, it was about the distinction between sustaining and disruptive innovation.

Recently, I also came across an article on HBR titled The 4 Types of Innovation and the Problems They Solve, so it seemed appropriate to expand perspectives and dig into what the author had to say.

In addition to sustaining and disruptive innovation, the author also introduced breakthrough innovation and a fourth element that really isn’t about innovation as much as it is about leveraging various types of research. I liked the image the author used to describe things at a high level across two axis … how well is the problem defined, and how well is the domain defined.

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From there, he used these descriptions of the boxes

  • Sustaining innovation. Most innovation happens here, because most of the time we are seeking to get better at what we’re already doing. We want to improve existing capabilities in existing markets, and we have a pretty clear idea of what problems need to be solved and what skill domains are required to solve them.
  • Breakthrough innovation. Sometimes … we run into a well-defined problem that’s just devilishly hard to solve. In cases like these, we need to explore unconventional skill domains.  We advance in specific fields by creating paradigms, which sometimes can make it very difficult to solve a problem within the domain in which it arose — but the problem may be resolved fairly easily within the paradigm of an adjacent domain.
  • Disruptive innovation. The author references the Innovator’s Dilemma in stating what is normally considered best practice — listening to customers, investing in continuous improvement, and focusing on the bottom line — can be lethal in some situations. When the basis of competition changes, because of technological shifts or other changes in the marketplace, companies can find themselves getting better and better at things people want less and less. When that happens, innovating your products won’t help — you have to innovate your business model.
  • Basic research. Pathbreaking innovations never arrive fully formed. They always begin with the discovery of some new phenomenon. Yet one of the best-kept secrets is how even small and medium-size enterprises can access world-class research.

The article referenced had some really good ideas, but it was the one about tapping into local universities that really captured my attention. Something I’ve been looking into recently anyway.

I’ll close with the following quote and a perspective all of us as Product Management leaders need to walk away with …  innovation starts with our own curiosity, and we should be continually seeking out new ways to explore problem solving.

Yet all too often, organizations act as if there is. They lock themselves into one type of strategy and say, “This is how we innovate.” It works for a while, but eventually it catches up with them. They find themselves locked into a set of solutions that don’t fit the problems they need to solve. Essentially, they become square-peg companies in a round-hole world and lose relevance.

We need to start treating innovation like other business disciplines — as a set of tools that are designed to accomplish specific objectives. Just as we wouldn’t rely on a single marketing tactic or a single source of financing for the entire life of an organization, we need to build up a portfolio of innovation strategies designed for specific tasks.

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