This gives us a good basic framework for determining what type of innovation we might want to pursue. Sometimes, we have well defined problems, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it’s clear who is best equipped to tackle a problem, sometimes it isn’t. By asking ourselves those two questions, we can outline a successful approach.
Just as there are different types of innovation, there are number of ways that companies can pursue innovation. Once we have defined the innovation problem, mapping solutions onto the matrix is fairly straightforward:
- Basic Research: While basic research rarely leads directly to new products or services, many corporations invest serious money into it. Some companies, like IBM, have internal labs doing primary research, while others invest by way of research grants to outside scientists and academic affiliations.
- Sustaining Innovation: Sustaining innovation is probably the most common in the corporate world and is often referred to as engineering rather than science. Like basic research, much of this is done by internal R&D labs, but many firms outsource it as well.
For instance, when Steve Jobs wanted a mouse for the Macintosh computer, he went to IDEO with clear technical specifications knowing that they had the right skills to produce what he wanted.
- Disruptive Innovation: Disruptive innovation is particularly tricky because you don’t know it until you see it and sometimes its value isn’t immediately clear. That’s why venture capital firms expect the vast majority of their investments to fail.
There is also a growing trend toward corporate innovation labs, which work closely with start-ups to perform ongoing “test and learn” programs that help identify promising new technologies before they are fully mature.
- Breakthrough Innovation: Often, a particular field has trouble moving forward because they need a new approach. That’s why breakthroughs often come from newcomers. Einstein and Newton were both in their 20’s when they came up with their major discoveries. The problem is, of course, waiting for a maverick genius to come along isn’t an efficient solution.
One way companies have started to attack the problem is through open innovation, either through internal programs like P&G’s connect and develop or through external platforms such as Innocentive. As Jonah Lehrer points out in his book Imagine, answers to tough questions often come from professionals working outside their chosen field.
Finally, some companies build multidisciplinary teams and set them up in a separate unit to pursue a particular innovation, like IBM did when they created the PC. This is rare, but can be the only viable option when breakthrough innovation is crucial to the future of a business.
Probably the toughest thing about innovation is deciding what to do about it. From changing the organizational structure and compensation logic of a business, to pricing and partnering strategies to new products and services, every facet of every business is ripe for innovation.
Deciding what to do about it is the #1 problem. Should you rely on a direct manager to innovate? After all, she knows the subject best. Should you bring in a whip-smart consultant? Talk with an academic? Partner? Crowdsource? What? The variety of options is not only dizzying, it’s paralyzing.
I think this matrix can help. Once you have answered the two basic questions of how well the problem and the domain are defined, your options drop precipitously, providing the clarity that can lead to action.
To paraphrase, Voltaire, if you need to solve a problem, first define your terms.