Why do people describe innovation as linear?

I have always been fascinated by the process of innovation. How people identify opportunities, organise to create a solution, and then deliver it to the market. I have read hundreds of books, papers, websites and blog posts on the subject, covering the multitude of approaches people take and the different methodologies and systems they use. It is fascinating stuff, and there are a wide range of strategies, tools and methodologies we can learn from.

But one thing puzzles me – the vast majority of those resources describe innovation as a linear process. First you do this, then you do that, and when you reach the end of the prescribed steps – Congratulations! You have innovated!

I am being slightly unfair to all these writers, as many of them do acknowledge that sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, and you may have to repeat some steps a number of times before you finally break through to the end, but ultimately stage follows stage in a rigid sequence.

These loops and feedback elements that they put into the process serve the same function as epicycles in the Ptolemaic description of the solar system. They are patches that can make the model conform to the physical reality, but they do not fix the problem that the underlying model is faulty.

In my entire career, I have never seen innovation proceed as these models would have you believe. Innovation is simply not a linear process. There may be brief periods when a project proceeds logically and sequentially for a while, but then something will happen that will send you off in a completely different direction.

I can understand why people describe innovation as a linear sequence of steps. It is easy to explain, makes nice diagrams, and it gives people who are uncertain confidence that there is a logic and process. If they follow the steps, they maximise their chance of successful innovation.

You can create process descriptions, checklists, decision points and Gantt charts. It can be packaged into training courses, books and consultancy support.

It is attractive, but it is an illusion. An illusion that can end up making it harder for people to innovate not easier.

Real world innovation is different

I first realised this when I was working for Unilever in the 1980’s. As a global fast-moving consumer goods company, Unilever was expert in identifying and understanding consumer needs, and had an excellent science and technology base to draw on for new product development. What I saw happening in successful innovations was a constant tussle and interchange between the market knowledge and underpinning science and technology, embodied in prototype products.

Marketing would ask for a new product that fitted some specific opportunity they had identified. The technologists would say we can’t give you exactly that, at least not at your target price, but if that is the sort of thing you are looking for, how about this alternative? The marketeers would come back saying we didn’t know that was possible. That opens up some new ideas, so how about we target this need instead?

And so it would go backwards and forwards with a double translation between market and product, and product and technology.

A few years later I came across the same idea in technology roadmapping, particularly the T-Plan methodology developed by the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University. I am sure the same idea has occurred to many people, but it still seems to be a minority view.

It’s a conversation!

So I have found it much more useful to think of innovation as a continuous conversation between three facets of a successful business:

  • A market/customer need – an end user trying to solve a specific problem.
  • A product/service – that uses specific capabilities to meet the market needs.
  • The business capabilities – that enable the delivery of the product/service.

The model makes explicit that to be commercially successful an innovation must satisfy a real market need, with a commercially viable product or service, that can be delivered with the capabilities the business has access to.

“..remember, your first idea is almost always wrong.”

It is also deliberately non-linear. Much of the literature will tell you that you should define the market or consumer need before you do anything else. But in reality, an idea for an innovation can come from any of the boxes. It can come from:

  • A desire to use a particular technology or capability in a wider range of markets – could we use this core competence to get into an adjacent market?
  • An unmet need spotted in a target market – if only we had a product that fitted this niche in our existing market?
  • an idea for a new product that could better meet an existing market need – we could do better in this market if our product was easier to use.

Whichever box the idea originates in, the innovation process will have to answer the questions in the other boxes. There is an ebb and flow in real world innovation processes, and the final solution emerges from the interaction and tension between the three parts of the conversation.

The solutions and blockages discovered in this conversation will change the innovation. As Scott Anthony says in “The Little Black Book of Innovation”:

“..remember, your first idea is almost always wrong. And you can’t figure out precisely how it is wrong through analysis alone. You have to, you know, actually do something.”

Innovation is emergent and unpredictable

When looking back over an innovation journey, what is delivered is often completely different from what was originally imagined. A linear model of innovation can cause people to persist with an idea long after it should have been ditched, because “that is what the project is about”.

Flexibility is essential in all aspects of innovation. Relentlessly driving for a specific solution, without raising your eyes to check how this fits with other aspects of the business, leads to answers that are late, don’t fit the target customer, and are too expensive.

As I said in an earlier blog – the leading cause of failure for newly launched products is that they solve a problem the customer doesn’t have! Think of innovation as a conversation so that you can balance capability, market need and the specific value proposition of your product or service.

Innovation is a Conversation, Not a Linear Process
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