"Don't worry about other people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."
This quote, by pioneering IBM engineer Howard Aiken, describes a common scenario: Someone comes up with a bright new idea that has potential to open up new opportunities and perhaps even transform a category, but soon after the naysayers weigh in. They poke holes in it, compare it to past failures, find the reasons why it won't work, or miss its potential altogether. While healthy up to a point, such questioning can lead to an environment in which innovation has a hard time thriving.
Innovation continues to be a key imperative for companies as they face ever more disruptive competition and customers who have increasingly high expectations about the user experiences of technology products. But a common problem is "innovation erosion"—the gradual reduction in the level of innovation of a product as it makes it way through the development cycle. A recent McKinsey study showed this to be a widespread issue, with 61 percent of 2,000 global executives saying that their organizations are poor at bringing innovations to commercialization.
How can we improve the success rate of seeing innovations through to commercialization? There are two major points where innovation erosion occurs, both of which involve transitions in the development process. By carefully managing these transitions, innovation erosion can be minimized.
Erosion at the insight transition
In the research and strategy phase that lays the groundwork for a new product development effort, ideally customer insights have been obtained through a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods (ethnography, surveys, etc.), the competitive landscape has been mapped, technologies assessed for their promise and viability, and business cases developed to evaluate new opportunities. The question is, will people be open to the ideas put forward in the research?
Imagine you are in the camcorder group at market leader Sony. What if research indicated that what people actually wanted was 180 degree opposite to the sophisticated, feature-rich products you'd successfully been making for decades? Such an idea would take some ramming (as Aiken would say).
But that's exactly the brief that led startup Pure Digital (now owned by Cisco) to design the Flip camcorders. Pure Digital realized that traditional camcorders were failing at what most people want when shooting video: simple, unobtrusive and fun to use, and easy to share.
By having the courage of their convictions from their research, and by having the design team intimately familiar with the research insights and unencumbered by years of legacy, the "low quality" Flips have gone on to completely disrupt a market dominated by consumer electronics behemoths.
Erosion at the engineering transition
The second major erosion point comes at the transition from design into detailed engineering for implementation, whether it is for manufacturing of a physical product or coding of a software product.
Too often the engineering staff is brought in late in the development process, with the result that the inevitable changes required for implementation are difficult to accomplish, and are missing the context of the research and design. Without knowledge of the design intent and the nuances of user experience design choices, the changes are made in a vacuum, and can inadvertently erode the innovation. The problem is exacerbated if the implementation is being handed off to a third party, as is often the case.
Another downside to involving engineering late is that opportunity for using new technologies as enablers of innovative user experiences are lost. At frog design, we have multidisciplinary teams all the way through the project, and engineers and software technologists are involved right from the start. When working with our parent company, Aricent, on an end-to-end project, Aricent's software developers work closely with our designers to ensure smooth transition of innovation intent. This means the designers are exposed to ways of using technologies that they may not have considered, and can prototype them in real time as the designs progress.
We have learned from hard-won experience that continuity of team members at these transition points, openness to research re-framing conventional wisdom, and early involvement of engineering/development staff, are all critical to preventing innovation erosion and launching products with their inspirational spark intact.
Adam Richardson is creative director at Aricent, and author of "Innovation X: Why a company's toughest problems are its greatest advantage."