In 2003 the Indian environmental researcher Narayana Peesapaty spotted an alarming trend: Groundwater levels in the region of Hyderabad were falling precipitously. He examined rainfall records but found nothing to explain the drop. Looking deeper, he discovered that the culprit was a change in agricultural practices. Many area farmers had abandoned millet—a traditional crop increasingly regarded as “the poor man’s food”—in favor of rice, a thirsty crop that requires 60 times as much water to grow. And because they had access to heavily subsidized electricity, the farmers were continuously pumping water into their fields.
Peesapaty tried to influence agricultural policies by documenting the problem in government reports, to no avail. So, he looked instead for ways to boost demand for millet. He hit on the idea of turning it into “edible cutlery”—a solution that could attack not just the groundwater deficit but also the scourge of plastic waste. Peesapaty quit his job to pursue the project. A decade later, after a video he posted about the cutlery went viral, orders began pouring in. Two crowdfunding campaigns exceeded their targets by more than twelvefold, and the first corporate orders shipped in 2016.
This great story demonstrates that there are two potential routes to a solution of a problem. The first is conformity, Peesapaty tried to influence government policy. The second, originality, in the case edible cutlery.
Unconventional thinkers have unprecedented access to knowledge, talents, capital and potential customers. Yet breakthrough products or services are hard to find, Gary Hamel, a recognized business thinker, notes that corporations are awash with ideas that full into one of two buckets. Incremental no brainers or flaky no hopers. I wonder into which bucker he would put Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Branson’s Virgin Galactic or Jeff Bezzo’s Blue Origin.
Why should this be? The authors in talking with both entrepreneurs identified three related criticisms of existing innovation frameworks. The often-used stage-gate process is too linear to facilitate radical innovation. It works fine for incremental innovation but fails when it comes to breakthrough innovation that moves forwards, then goes backwards and then forwards again during the development process.
Innovation frameworks are incomplete. They do not allow for the way people act when developing new ideas. They focus on lean methodology (action and fast iteration) whereas Adam Grant of Wharton talks about strategic procrastination – time for deep reflection.
Finally traditional frameworks are misleading. They gloss over pitfalls and biases that limit creative thinking.
Even when leaders recognize this pitfalls and know they must break the paradigm during the creation stage, they fail in execution. Take the Sony Reader, never heard of it you say, I am not surprised. Technically brilliant but Sony did not enlist the book publishing industry as an ally, Amazon did not make this mistake when it launched a technically inferior but incredibly successful Kindle just over a year later. Sony engineered an elegant device; Amazon offered a solution.
The authors have developed a five element framework that is more accepting of the messiness of breakthrough innovation.
Look through a fresh lens. Our experiences tend to interfere with our ability to look at things with a fresh set of eyes. This may blind us, unconsciously, to radical insights. To combat this bias question what perspectives drive your focus and what you might be missing as a result. Nivea conducted an online analysis of discussions about deodorants on social media sites. Their findings, contrary to what they expected, it was not the fragrance, effectiveness or the development of anti-stain deodorants and the company’s most successful product launch in their 130 year history. `
Step Back to expand your understanding. Its now time to step back before rushing into problem solving. Many of us of have a tendency to jump to the solution. Instead take a break, change activities, wait a day or two to allow alternative solutions to emerge.
Look for unexpected combinations. It is not uncommon for companies to lose their imagination after they have achieved a measure of success. Xerox was almost a monopoly in the world of photocopiers. Complacency set in, innovation was second place to sales, they lost out to competitors who had better products. Avoid this by asking yourself questions such as “Why not?” or “What if?” “What if we no longer did what we do now?” The McLaren group known for their Formula One racing team considered their skill sets such as aerodynamics, predictive analysis to turn their attention to other areas where this skill would be helpful. McLaren is now a consulting and technology group that owns a formula one team.
Test smarter to learn faster. You have turned your idea into a prototype solution to test it out. The challenge is that as you start testing confirmation biases and the sunken cost fallacy deaden your ability to react to feed (I talked about the sunken cost fallacy during show 4 of Season 6. Listen to assess your propensity to fall foul of the sunken cost bias. Plus this episode contains useful information if you are considering launch an on line store)
Go external with your prototype, expose it others so they can see it, touch it, and interact with it. Listen to what they say. Negative reactions are as helpful and positive reactions. Do not spend too much on your prototype, the idea is to test not build. Simple models are sometimes referred to a Frankenstein models.
Navigate to avoid being shot down. This can be internal, Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer who invented the digital camera lost Kodak’s support in part because he called filmless photography. Or external Jonathon Ledgard saw drones as a solution to some of Africa’s transport problems. The word drone can sound menacing, so Mr. Ledgard called them “Flying Donkeys” a much friendlier description. Present your ideas that are consistent with your company’s goals and in a way that will resonate with your customers.