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Innovating innovation

24 Jul 2018

| Author: Stan Wade

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Innovating innovation

Innovate or die! We have all heard the warning and most of us believe it. I consider myself a student of innovation and have delved into its mysteries much deeper than most. Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered I had got a lot of the deep understanding fundamentally wrong!

Everybody knows that if you have a one on a million chance of something happening, it happens nine times out of ten. Well that’s the view of Terry Pratchett’s wizards, and although it sounds ludicrous it is adopted quite widely with some people’s approach to innovation.

Lets start with a simple question, what is innovation? Its not as simple as it sounds, but the best definition I have found is ‘finding solutions to fulfil an unmet need’. Let’s remember that definition.

When I did my MBA at Imperial, innovation was one of my core disciplines and I was trained in the ‘best thinking’ of the time. The overall process is simple. Collect some great ideas from somewhere, filter or order them and experiment to find the winner with the ‘fail fast’ approach. It’s a very common approach and I see it everywhere. This approach is supported by prominent academics and practitioners and has a huge following in industry. The problem is, the success rate is quite appalling. Only a small proportion of innovative ideas generated from ideas are successful.

So why is that? Its quite simple really. This approach is taking lots of ‘solutions’ and evaluating their feasibility and then seeing if almost by chance they are hitting an unmet need. It’s like giving someone a machine gun and saying ‘shoot away and hit as many targets as you can, then we can see if the target was worth hitting’. All sounds a bit random and expensive to me. You will need a lot of bullets.

Tony Alwick has looked at this problem and developed Outcome Driven Innovation. Based on Jobs to be Done theory, he has come up with a different approach. He supports a needs-based approach to innovation. Instead of looking at the solution first, ODI looks at the ‘unmet needs’ first. Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt said, "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!". The drill isn’t the important thing, it’s the hole. Given a specific market what do customers need to achieve and what elements of these needs are currently unmet by existing offerings? He is defining the target we want to hit up front. Once we have a target, a sniper can aim and shoot a single bullet with the confidence it’s a target worth hitting.

His goal is to turn innovation from an art to a science or engineering discipline. Increasing predictability sounds good to me. And as an engineer, I am not so much into the magic of Terry’s Unseen University wizards and would prefer not to deal with occult practices if possible. I personally feel I have had epiphany on my views on innovation. The last time I felt like this was in the 90’s when I discovered Agile. It’s a great feeling that my eyes have been opened and I will certainly be investigating this further. I am sure I will be writing about ODI and Jobs to be Done a lot more.

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Stan Wade

Stan is a highly experienced Agile mentor, with more than a decade's experience of Agile over a number of market sectors, primarily in the financial sector. He takes a business-led approach to IT, complemented by a strong development and operations background.

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