The Essentials of Innovation

Given enough time to think about it, we all probably know the essentials of innovation based on our own experiences.  Yet these essentials can be so difficult to apply in corporate cultures with different heritages.  So application becomes the key to aligning the stakeholders at any particular organization.

Applying essentials company-wide, getting buy-in from stakeholders, motivating internal key opinion leaders and the “doers,” adding a structure to sustain such innovation endeavors as cross-cutting practices take time and patience.   Since no one formula for innovation fits all organizations, essentials such as discovery, choosing, accelerating, scale up, and motivating take on their own characteristics depending on the nature of the organization.


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Four Steps Toward Innovation

I have always likened the process of innovation to a baseball diamond.  Four bases to round home (i.e., commercialization) is the equivalent to simplifying the innovation process to four steps:

1) create insight

2) define the problem

3) craft the solution

4) develop the business model

These steps have been suggested as the way to simplify the innovation process by Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer in the December 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review.  Many tasks obviously go into manifesting each of the four steps and the details help us all to commercialization.

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Creativity is a Process of Surrender, Not of Control

In today’s culture, especially the competitive culture of corporations, the concept of surrender does not get praise and acknowledgement. Certainly, the process of triage in the early stages of development can be viewed as surrendering. This early quitting and letting go of dedicated resources is accepted because this decision is largely driven by financial constraints. Yet from a resource development point of view, early termination decisions free resources for product development projects with greater market value with resources that have experience in developing other, perhaps, related, products.

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Fear of Failure Delays Innovation

Most folks experienced in innovation and commercial development have experienced failure.  Failure in this context is merely one step forward toward ultimate success.  The key is to reduce risks of large failures.   Many new products newly commercialized need updates, fix-its, or are followed quickly with next generation products.  The risks one should keep in mind are the large factors that mitigate risk of innovation failure, rather than getting everything right out of the gate.

Remember, optimization beats perfection.

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User-Driven Innovation

By asking your customers their needs, hopefully they will tell you what they need. Yet many disruptive innovations are developed based on un-articulated customers needs.

By combining disparate information regarding customers’ needs, truly novel insights can be obtained.

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Strong Triage Maximizes Innovation Resources

The costs of innovation have rose to the extent that discovery gaps exist for whole industries.  The pharmaceutical industry has been the focus of many studies as to why such a discovery gap (drugs with expiring patents coupled with few new molecular entities) has existed since the mid-1990s.  Clearly, large expenditures in genomic research have not yielded timely results and products as was originally expected.

Resource allocation in time and money have been enormous since the mid-1990s.  A recent study by Ringel et al. (2013) shows that early cessation of pharmaceutical candidates facilitates R&D productivity, not company size or expenditures.  Early termination of candidates, or a strong triage, at the preclinical stage increases the success of the whole development program by redirecting resources to the next candidate.  Accurate, verifiable triage at the preclinical stage ensures that relatively minimal money is spent before expensive clinical trials are conducted.

Ringel et al. (2013) also found that locating pharmaceutical R&D efforts near a science hub increase success by providing better access to local talent and better chance for collaboration.


Ringel, M. et al. Does size matter in R&D productivity?  If not, what does?  Nature Review Drug Discovery 12:901-902. doi:10.1038/nrd4164.

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Key Success Factors for Creating an Innovation Culture

How to get there and what does it look like….

The success factors for innovative company cultures are the overwhelming alignment of R&D managers to collaborate with openness to promote creativity and to manage risk. In the big picture, innovation strategy (if one exists) needs to align with the corporate strategy. High growth companies typically have strategic and culture alignment with their innovation strategy.

On a more cultural level, educational risk-taking needs to be rewarded and not punished. Otherwise the remaining organization will learn not to take risk. For example, many companies lay-off R&D personnel when their projects do not pan out successful, thus sending a message to the rest of the organization to not take risks, as well as incentivizes R&D personnel to stay off the skyline and to do merely what they are told to do. This management behavior sets up a feudal system for discovery to development to launch.

How do we get there…..

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Servant Leaders: Leadership Contains Servitude

This concept is not what most folks think about leaders, being servants of those they lead? This principle is not a cultural norm of most Western civilizations.

An example? Think of Harry Potter’s behavior…..Think about the CEO’s showcased in Good to Great.

Servant leaders tend to exhibit many of the same character traits: empathy, awareness, listening, persuasion, foresight (vision), conceptualization, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth, healing, and building community.

The foresight trait enables servant leaders to envision the next goal for an organization, and their other traits enable the organization to create buy-in and to develop traits among personnel so they can contribute towards the goal.

The same concept applies to leading innovation efforts. What could be better that one can align stakeholders and to receive and adopt their input as part of the effort to build an innovation “environment?”

It is wise to realize that one needs to give to get.

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Corporate Environmental Factors Enabling Innovation

So you have set up a process to innovate. Have you considered some of the cultural issues that affect your corporate environment so you can actually innovate and come up with new ideas to address customers’ needs?

People need time off from their daily routines to allow time and energy to focus on new possibilities. This actually involves directed wandering with a creative mind to address customers’ needs. To accomplish an environment for mental creativity, different employees need direct situations: some need to sit alone while others feed off of other’s related or unrelated thoughts–the same as figuring out a problem by oneself or by talking it out with others. Some people need time to get out of their routine environment to invigorate their thinking. Time and place for creative thought tends to be individualistic.

In the goal of innovation, employees need to be able to broaden their existing responsibilities and the role they play within the organization. Otherwise, other employees may disregard a new idea because it was created by a person who works in the “wrong” area, or the new idea is outside of the area their current responsibilities. It is important to realize that most employees have had different responsibilities throughout their career that provide adequate experience for new ideas outside their current role within the organization.

The underlying cultural rejection of failure will undermine anyone’s ability to generate new ideas. A culture that keeps everyone “off the skyline” will abrogate the realization of new horizons. So recognize solid efforts for risky projects in which employees took all the right steps, and provide shared learning among other employees to create “innovation value” for the organization.

These environmental factors will clear much of the hesitancy in new idea generation.

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Getting Out of Your Way to Innovate

Bureaucratic inertia and management faithlessness aside, making your pitch to innovate involves knowing not only consumer needs yet also management needs. Maybe upper management doesn’t know what you do, so send them a short email weekly (2-3 sentences total) to tell them what you’re up to. By opening up a communication channel you can find out what upper management needs. Upper management is supposed to be driven by the company’s strategic plan, so plug onto the strategic plan, and innovate accordingly. If done diplomatically, communication channels can reduce bureaucratic inertia throughout the organization.

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