Three steps to innovation success

All this week, innovation author and strategy guru Rowan Gibson has answered pressing questions about the best ways to approach innovation. He provided case studies of some of the world’s top brands, and he has shared tips that you can apply to your business immediately to bring measurable value to your innovation efforts. His final post is below.

What are your top three "must do's" for breakthrough innovation success?

I would say Number One is to try to generate ideas that are truly radical. Companies can no longer hope to significantly grow revenues by coming up with a slightly improved version of the same old thing and then selling it to the same old customers through the same old channels in the same old way.

I consider an idea truly radical if it has the power to dramatically reset customer expectations and behaviors; or if it has the power to change the basis for competitive advantage; or if it has the power to change industry economics in some significant manner.

A good way to generate breakthrough ideas like these is to use an ideation tool like the “Four Lenses of Innovation,” which I outline in my book Innovation To The Core. This tool helps you develop radical new opportunities by systematically challenging industry orthodoxies, harnessing trends, leveraging resources in new ways, and addressing unmet customer needs. So what you tend to get is bold, unconventional ideas that are of far higher quality and strategic value to the company than the ones you usually get from tired, more traditional ideation methods — brainstorming, creative thinking games, and so forth. So that’s my Number One, which has to do with the front end of innovation.

Number Two would be to create the necessary infrastructures, processes and mechanisms at the back end to ensure that breakthrough ideas are nurtured and supported in the organization rather than squashed. I have touched on some of the ways to do that in this blog series, such as freeing up management time for innovation, properly screening and evaluating ideas based on their potential business impact, instituting mechanisms for rapidly reallocating resources behind promising opportunities, and building new organization structures for handling ideas that fall outside or even threaten the existing business model.

My Number Three “Must Do” for breakthrough innovation is to get the timing right. There is an assumption that every breakthrough innovation opportunity is like a sprint — the first company to market wins. This is not necessarily true.

Running the race

The first step to winning the race is realizing

whether you're in a sprint or a marathon.

While many opportunities would clearly meet this description — such as Netflix, Hotmail, Skype, MySpace, YouTube, PayPal, or DirecTV — there are just as many breakthrough opportunities that are actually more like marathons. Think high-definition television, gene replacement therapy, speech recognition software, or fuel cell–propelled automobiles — these have turned out to be hugely difficult, long-term challenges. That’s because it may take quite a number of years to get the technology right, or the business model right, or to penetrate the public consciousness, before an idea takes off in a significant way. Other examples that come to mind are Nespresso (Nestlé’s capsule-based coffee system), or the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods Market; both of these opportunities were decades in the making.

Of course, in hindsight it is not hard to see which opportunities were sprints and which ones were marathons. But companies often find it difficult to distinguish between sprints and marathons at their nascent stage — to judge whether a new business idea will take off very fast or will need much longer to gain market penetration. As a result, they can find themselves investing too much too soon — racing to the market with an idea that is extremely premature (remember the Apple Newton?); or, conversely, investing too little too late — chasing an opportunity when it has already been cornered by a competitor and there is very little chance of catching up (like Wal-Mart versus Amazon in online retailing).

Getting the timing right is vital for success in breakthrough innovation. With sprint-like innovation opportunities, it’s smart to move fast. With marathons, on the other hand, the smart thing to do is move slowly. The goal is to match the pace of a company’s investment to the underlying pace of market development. Companies that get this wrong tend to let their financial commitment and the pace of their learning get out of sync with the natural time frame of an emerging opportunity.

So my three "must do's" for breakthrough innovation success are,

  • first, to generate and capture truly radical ideas;
  • second, to nurture and manage these opportunities properly from nascent ideas through to seriously funded innovation projects; and,
  • third, to work out the optimum pace and the scale at which to invest resources in these particular opportunities.

Companies will need to do all three — and do them well — to win in today’s highly competitive innovation economy.

Rowan Gibson is a global business strategist, a bestselling author and an expert on radical innovation. He is also one of the world’s most in-demand public speakers, and you may catch one of his seminars live Tuesday, Nov. 30 at Imaginatik’s Innovation Leaders Forum in Chicago. Rowan’s books have been translated into over 20 languages. His latest book, Innovation to the Core, is published by Harvard Business School Press. He may be contacted at

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