Get in your Cubicle & Innovate… If you have ever worked in corporate R&D this might sound familiar to you. You’ve become excited about a new technology that has just been implemented in a related field and you think it could possibly be used in your field also. You’ve noticed that there is going to be a scientific conference right in this technology’s sweet spot but it is going to be held across the country. You don’t have a specific product idea yet or even know exactly how this new technology could be implemented in your field but you have a hunch it will become important. In fact you want to go to see if a new product concept can be put together using this new technology. Unfortunately corporate budgets are tight again and everyone has to justify their travel expenses to conferences. Your sense of pessimism is heightened by the fact that your supervisor isn’t really a “new ideas” kind of person with no patents, no published scientific articles, and no personal connections with academic research facilities. In fact this person has been overheard saying that conferences are a waste of time and more like vacation than work. Your supervisor is also very risk adverse, fearing that somehow a scientist does not have the business acumen to keep proprietary work confidential. In spite of this you hope your supervisor will understand the importance of you attending the conference. At your next one-on-one meeting you ask if you can attend and explain that even though the technology is not currently in the company’s field of business, you think it is an emerging technology that could have applications in your area of R&D and that the company can’t afford to ignore it. As expected, your supervisor goes with his usual stand-by response, “I can only afford to send a few people to conferences this year and if it isn’t “on target” eyebrows will be raised….maybe next year”.
Disruptive Innovation vs Sustaining Innovation … In previous posts we discussed the differences between disruptive innovation and sustaining innovation. One of the important differences is that the competencies for developing disruptive innovation verses sustaining innovation can be different. Since disruptive innovation improves a product or a service in a way that the market does not expect by redefining the notion of performance or by exploiting unmet or overlooked consumer benefits, disruptive innovation can dramatically increase the size of the market. The question is, how can companies move toward a state of increased “disruptive innovation”?
Social Networking … Social networking is an important component in the development of disruptive technology. Social networks can be internal or external. For example, internally an organizational chart provides the theory of how the organization is structured and how decisions are made but the informal internal social network provides the real-world practice of how work is done and who are the gatekeepers; it illustrates how people work together to solve problems and make decisions in the real world1. Often nodes in the informal internal social network hold an important place in the internal organization far greater than their formal title. The persons that correspond to these nodes, in general, should be nurtured since work and information flow through them. This is especially important when it comes to New Product Development execution. These nodes are in the thick of it and are important in getting things done, although they can become bottlenecks unless the right balance is struck. You can read more about social networking analysis in general in the reference at footnote 1 below.
External Social Networks are Important for Disruptive Innovation … Similarly there is a social network external tothe business organization. It is extremely important that this social network be strong for innovation workers (R&D in particular), especially those involved in developing disruptive innovations. Since disruptive innovation often involves the utilization of an emerging new technology and applying it in a new context, innovation workers with a strong external network (as illustrated on the left in the diagram above) are probably going to be the most creative innovation workers. Researchers, scientists, and engineers with large and strong external networks will have the most exposure to new ideas, new technologies and opportunities to make new connections critical for disruptive new ideas. All these considerations bring us back to the researcher in the first paragraph whose external network is diminished every time he is denied permission to attend a scientific conference. If the company is really interested in innovation crescendo then these types of networking opportunities will always be a priority.
Innovation Teams … In reality, productive innovation teams need a mix of people who are creative, who have strong external networks and people who are executional by nature and have strong internal networks and know how to get things done. Creative innovators with strong external networks are needed to identify emerging new technologies and utilize them in new product concepts that have the potential to be disruptive innovations.
Summary … The culture/environment in many companies makes it difficult to pursue disruptive innovations because the short term profitability of disruptive innovations is limited vs. existing technology and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations necessary for competing against current competition. Kodak is the classic example of this, in that they developed a digital camera early on but failed to market it as a replacement to chemical films quickly enough to save the company. However, every large company should maintain the discipline to keep 10-25% of their portfolio focused on disruptive innovations and incentivize their innovation workers to keep their external networks strong so that new connections for using emerging technologies can be made.
© Dennis Nelson 2013