Welcome to the Innovation Front End. I'm Don Ross and this is my blog that focuses on how companies can do a better job during the early phases of the innovation process. Companies that are the best at driving organic growth through innovation in products, services or technologies have a dedicated front end process in place. The following entries capture some of the best ideas, theory, and practice of the Innovation Front End. "

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Beyond Tilting at Windmills

Breaking the “quick fix” innovation cycle through technology discovery

Tight budgets, limited time frames, reduced headcount, quick to market pressures – all are part of the new R and D normal; especially post the great recession.  Finding quick answers to today's burning performance problem is systemic and fueled by management's demand for instant reporting.  

I'm sure you've seen the symptoms of a constrained innovation environment
  • Firefighting with no time to think about underlying problems
  • Relying on existing "comfort" models for solutions leveraging what we already know
  • Avoiding unknown unknowns - what we don't know we don't know

When constrained we avoid the essential part of the front end of innovation - Discovery

The result?  We become self limited innovators

According to Blaine Childress, Sealed Air’s Manager of Open Innovation

"Engineers or scientists limit their search and identify only the defects that can be fixed with some minor change to formulation or process condition and never puts real effort into finding the root of the problem and developing a more fundamental and sustaining solution."

While urgency does drive innovation, when teams choose the quick fix they often overlooks the greater innovation opportunity.

Like Don Quixote and his side kick Sancho, many innovation teams are "tilting at windmills."  

  • They don't take time for discovery to define the right problems to solve
  • They only apply what they already know and is accepted by management
  • They extend existing technology rather than considering new approaches and capabilities that might change the game
Achieving higher levels of innovation under today's constraints is very possible, provided you change the innovation environment and break the rules a little bit.

How to Break the Rules
  • Create a forum for Discovery that engages a true multidisciplinary team
  • Challenge the team to assemble a strong external perspective, broadening the opportunity space
  • Utilize external expertise to reduce R and D costs and time
  • Embrace thoughtful consideration of issues and opportunities that go outside what we already know
  • Use a team learning and synthesis process to identify value paths to success

A Case Study of Success

This past April, Blaine Childress, Sealed Air’s Manager of Open Innovation and I teamed up to share how we are enhancing Sealed Air's external innovation program at the PDMA's Innovate Carolina  conference in Raleigh, NC.  

We created a Front End Discovery Forum using Innovare's Tech Explorer approach.  

By doing so we shifted their process paradigm to better address customer needs and drive innovation within a resource-constrained environment.  

Our presentation describing our approach with real life examples from wind energy, water conservation, and food packaging can be viewed in the following  Slideshare.  

View it in full screen mode!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Eight Foundations for the Front End of Innovation

How do you know if you have a good front-end of innovation?
  • You’re generating lots of ideas
  • There’s a steady stream of great concepts coming out that mirror your strategic intent
  • The organization is energized by each concept’s potential and is motivated to drive effective implementation
  • You are meeting or, better yet, beating your innovation metrics in timing, costs, and profitable growth
  • Your current and new businesses follow the life-cycle model that is right for the firm
A good front-end should help the organization achieve these outcomes.

When you talk to managers at companies that have a good front-end in place and look at their processes, you find common ground. Their approaches may have different names, but they share key attributes.

I’ve broken them down into 8 front-end foundations.
  1. Systematic and repeatable front end process
  2. Empowered and connected front-end teams with executive sponsorship
  3. Externally focused organizational learning
  4. Cross-functional team immersion
  5. Customer-driven research approach
  6. Open technology discovery
  7. Climate for developmental thinking
  8. Portfolio perspective
Here they are with a little more depth!

Systematic and repeatable front end process - A good front end requires an on-going process rather than periodic ideation when the cupboard is bare. It includes discovery, concept development, and validation phases. It enables sustained innovation by delivering a steady stream of opportunities aligned with strategy.

Empowered and connected front-end teams with executive sponsorship - Small cross-functional teams make up the core of the front end organization. The team has freedom to explore and develop opportunities within prescribed strategic focus areas. Team members have linkage to the business and their functional homes, providing connectivity to the front end. The team is flexible in composition, adding temporary expertise as needed from within or outside the firm. Executive sponsors provide mentoring and resources, as well as organizational blocking and tackling when needed. There is clarity in roles, responsibilities, and decision making within the team and across the organization.

Externally focused organizational learning - Organizational learning is embraced to overcome internally derived paradigms or mental models that limit management’s thinking. The front-end goes beyond what’s already known. They socialize their discoveries and concepts, expanding the range of opportunities in a manner the whole organization can get behind.

Cross-functional team immersion - Deeply imbedding new knowledge within the cross-functional team is critical. Leveraging the diversity of informed minds leads to better problem definition, solution development, and ultimately organizational alignment.

Customer-driven research approach - Building an empathetic understanding of current and emerging customer needs is a central process. The team uncovers new frameworks by listening to the customer’s story. They discover customer need insights that can be merged with market and technology insights to guide innovation.

Open technology discovery - Technology discovery is proactive and connected to customer needs. Anticipating internal and external technology’s impact on the competitive environment, customer needs, and possible solutions allows for faster, innovations with competitive insulation. But there is more to it. Understanding the future impact of science and technology helps the team anticipate latent customer needs. Needs that the customer cannot articulate and may not even realize they have yet. Focusing the innovations towards latent needs creates the opportunity to truly excite customers and transform the market.

Climate for developmental thinking - A non judgmental and safe environment allows the team to create ideas and not kill them too soon. Ideas are nurtured and developed into viable concepts that can withstand the rigor of validation. The developmental thinking environment enhances team creativity, the strength of their new concepts, and the willingness of the organization to adopt and implement their innovations.

Portfolio perspective - The team creates a range of innovation opportunities from close-in changes to existing offerings up through breakthroughs. The portfolio is aligned with strategy, and takes into consideration the needs and timing of the business units and technology availability. As a result, the pipeline is populated with a steady stream of innovations.

Take a look at your front-end.

How many of these foundations does your organization embrace?