Sunday, 13 April 2014

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In their thought-provoking book, Breakthrough, the authors, Mark Stefik and Barbara Stefik write, “The future is invented not so much by a heroic loner or by a single company with a great product as by the capacity to combine science, imagination, and business. An innovation ecology includes education, research organizations, and government funding agencies, technology companies, investors, and consumers. A society’s capacity for innovation depends on its innovation ecology”.


Management Masala I Want to Start with Solving a Real Customer’s Real Problem V K Talithaya
The base for innovation is scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is created by basic research, largely at universities. But new technologies are created mainly at corporate research centers. For example, after years of basic research in materials and electronics, the transistor was created at Bell Labs.

Innovation is about the future - what the customer will need in the future; what new products the competitors may introduce in the market. As our earlier piece on Strategy – Conjuring the Future mentioned, the future is unpredictable. The future always brings surprises.

Success breeds a growing market. It also breeds overconfidence in the existing successful product-range and leads to a narrowing of focus and complacency about sustaining research to foster innovation. Breakthrough innovations and technologies are often disruptive causing problems for established successful companies because they disturb their whole product line, their strong profitability, and what they assume to be doing well at present. It is this reluctance of established companies to embrace change that IS behind the success of many startups. The successful companies “are reluctant to shoot themselves in the foot, although that is a lot better than what will happen to them later”. One’s success itself becomes a vested interest. While there are many vested interests in existing products – the entire supply-chain, the market and so on, there are few vested interests in innovation. “When a company gets good at making a particular product for a particular kind of customer, some of its reactions become automatic. It develops special ‘lenses’ for efficiently focusing on and seeing its customers. The fault lies in the dependence on the lenses”. At the core of this dilemma is the challenge of managing the costs and benefits of innovation and breakthrough research.
Management Masala I Want to Start with Solving a Real Customer’s Real Problem V K Talithaya

Innovation is taking an invention all the way to a product. The difference between basic research and innovation is that one is driven by curiosity and the other by necessity. “If basic research had a slogan, it might be ‘Follow your curiosity wherever it leads you’. Basic research is about creating new knowledge. On the other hand, if applied research had a slogan, it might be, ‘Focus on the important problem. Don’t get distracted by your curiosity.’ Applied research is about using what is known to solve problems”. There are breakthrough researches which are neither basic nor applied. These are what are known as radical research (neither basic nor applied), that is, “following problem to its root”
Another way of looking at invention and innovation is: “What is possible?” concerns research, discovery, and invention. “What is needed?” concerns business and social needs.

The person who comes up with the applied ideas thinks differently than the scientist who lays the foundation. The authors of Breakthrough give a characteristic example of one of the great innovators of our time, Ted Selker. “Ted Selker has invented many things, especially devices for interacting with computer systems. Selker is known as a hyperkinetic wild man. His eyes sparkle, he talks rapidly, and his words can’t keep up with his brain. He has more ideas in a day than many inventors have in a decade. When we asked Selker how he picked problems to work on, his answer was startling: ‘Actually, I don’t consider a problem interesting or worth working on unless I have a customer who wants it solved. I want to start with solving a real customer’s real problem’.” If Ted Selker had a lemma, it might be, “Don’t start with a solution looking for a problem. Start with a problem and then find a solution for it.”
Management Masala I Want to Start with Solving a Real Customer’s Real Problem V K Talithaya

In contrast the seeds of invention are in curiosity. George de Mestral was a Swiss inventor and amateur mountaineer. One day in 1948 he took his dog for a nature hike. Returning from the hike, his clothing and his dog were both were both covered with burrs – the rough prickly seed packages created by plants that cling to animal fur, enabling them to hitch a ride to new places to grow. De Mestral was curious. He took his clothing and the burrs to a microscope and observed that the burrs had thousands of tiny hooks that clung to tiny loops in the fabric of his clothing. He was fascinated by how the burrs clung to the cloth. Inspired to create a new kind of fastener that worked the same way, de Mestral collaborated with a weaver from a textile plant in France. They created two materials: a nylon cloth with tiny hooks and another with tiny loops. Patented in 1955, VELCRO is now a major product and used around the world. Before de Mestral, millions of people had encountered burrs. Thousands of field biologists with microscopes have had the means to see the natural arrangement of hooks and loops. Most people simply remove the burrs with annoyance but without curiosity and without seeing a possibility for invention. George de Mestral found an invention where other people found just burrs.

De Mestral prepared his mind to see an opportunity in nature’s engineering. At the age of 12 he designed and patented a toy airplane. Having seen the frustrations of using zippers he worked on improving them. His mountaineering and seeing nature’s challenges trained his mind to seeing differently.

Whereas Ted Selker’s approach was that of a ‘beginner’s mind’, De Mestral’s was the approach of the ‘prepared mind’. The ‘prepared mind’ says “use your previous experience”. It works on past experience, past preparedness to look at what is seen around differently. On the other hand Ted Selker’s ‘the beginner’s mind’ is the opposite of the prepared mind. The beginner’s mind says, “Discard your previous experience”. Cultivating the beginner’s mind prepares the mind to break out of mindsets.

Invention is having an idea; innovation is the other 99% of the work. From a business perspective, innovation is “taking new technology and realizing its economic potential”. Therefore, innovation has a ‘management’ perspective about it. Too much of the wrong kind of management kills off innovation. The cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Allen Newell observed, “People think that science is riskier than it actually is. If you take a group of smart people and send them down some path, they generally come back with some thing interesting. However, one thing you can do, that prevents them from being successful, is to repeatedly change their direction. Rapid direction changing prevents researchers from sticking with a problem long enough to master the details and make progress”. Therefore, for innovation to be a part of the organizational culture, a balance has to be struck between managing down and managing up. Managing down involves paying attention to the research group and creating an environment that enables the group to be effective. Managing up requires understanding the perceptions and the needs of upper management and responding to its goals and requests. Success in managing up requires maintaining the confidence of higher management. Success in managing down requires maintaining an environment in which researchers have confidence that they can succeed. Such confidence is undermined when directions are changed too rapidly. When changes in direction are needed, what is called for is inspiration. Without inspiration there is constant shuffling around. With inspiration, researchers will build up, sustain, and focus their energies. 

By V.K.Talithaya (vktalithaya@managementmasala.com)
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On 4/13/2014

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