BY TOM COX | BIZ TIPS CONTRIBUTOR
Want more real breakthroughs faster in your firm or department? Here’s an easy way: stop “innovating” so much.
That counter-intuitive approach is the unavoidable conclusion of a fresh look at how most firms approach innovation. You’re probably making one or more of these innovation errors. Fixing them will boost your performance.
The three major ways people mis-handle innovation are: wheel reinvention, over-focus on the core, and putting people first (in the wrong way).
Re-Inventing the Wheel
Fred is a lighting and electrical engineer for a firm that designs and builds the interiors of buildings (light, HVAC, power, etc.). They have a core need to run projects, and run them very well. When Fred saw that his firm was unnecessarily losing money too often on projects, he made a classic mistake — he started to re-design the project management process. Himself. Then, he made another version of that mistake, recruiting some peers to help him re-design their project management approach. In isolation. Then, they made a third version of that mistake, inviting everyone in their firm who was interested, to contribute to the effort.
Here’s the key — all of them had engineering degrees, yet none of them had heard of the Project Management Institute (PMI). Fred was doing a great job of including internal stakeholders. He just wasn’t aware of a universe of external people who had solved most of his project management problems.
PMI gives professional certifications — such as the PMP (Project Management Professional). PMI publishes a massive reference book, the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) that includes chapters on all Fred’s major problems. PMI and its affiliated vendors run in-person and online training in all areas of the PMBOK needed to earn the PMP.
Fred was leading a hopeless effort to re-invent the PMBOK from first principles. And he didn’t even know it. All that time and energy could have been saved, and his firm could have made massive improvements in mere months, if he’d looked outside for some ideas.
When tackling a tough problem, avoid taking a risky trip up the Productization Path.
An Idea is not a Product
An Idea is only a Product when it works outside the lab, in the rest of the world. For example, turning an idea into a piece of software may take as little as 10% of the total effort to bring it to market — the other 90% comes from the rest of the trip up the Productization Path — creating the elements of a Product — quality tests, documentation, user training, a support team, training for the support team, a stock of replacement parts (for hardware products), maintenance manuals, distribution channels (for new product lines), pricing, sales training, sales support material, etc.
The “Sapling Saver” is a great example. The inventor, Craig Smith (on whose advisory board I sit), patented the design years ago. Right now he’s walking the long road to productization — building prototypes, filming promotional videos, talking to potential wholesalers and partners.
Once he’s done, he’ll have a Product.
Risk of the Productization Path
Now, suppose you own a large landscaping firm, and you know you spend $15,000 a year replacing plants that your crews damage while trimming weeds. You have a choice of (a) continuing to pay that money; (b) re-inventing the Sapling Saver yourself (and then maintaining your own equipment) at a cost of many thousands of dollars and several years, or (c) buying real Sapling Savers off-the-shelf for all your crews for $5,000, and getting a warranty, access to replacements, free training videos, etc. Only a nut would pick “b” — yet we do.
Every time you try to develop a solution in-house, you take on all the risks of Productization.
If you can get a good-enough alternative off-the-shelf, you should. If you’re a leader and your people come to you seeking approval for an in-house innovation effort, require them to look outside first. (A great resource for that is Skip Sponsel’s Emerging Technology Accelerator, a searchable database of productized innovations.)
That’s what happened at Northwest UAV Propulsion Systems. NWUAV is one of the largest manufacturers of engines and propulsion systems for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the U.S. Tiny UAV engines normally struggle to turn heavy fuels like diesel (the fuel mandated by their major customers) into uniform, tiny droplets that burn efficiently. Chris Harris and his team at NWUAV opted not to spend years inventing some new droplet-making technology — they licensed five Hewlett Packard ink-jet printer patents, for turning heavy ink into uniform, tiny droplets. The choice leap-frogged their development effort by years — and by licensing patents, they reduced their risk of a competitor acquiring that same technology. Now they’re a sought-after strategic partner — they recently formed an alliance with Ricardo and XRDi, two other major players in the UAV industry.
They still have to innovate to adapt the ink-jet technology to the heat and vibration of a flying engine — but that’s something they know nobody else has done.
We’ll cover Over-Focus on the Core, and Putting People First (in the wrong way), in future columns.
Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.