Month: October 2012

Osmotic Innovation is Linking You Up

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What’s your road to innovation look like?

Innovation through acquisition

Often the news of a large corporation buying out a start up is met with cynical press that somehow infers the act is driven by an inherent lack of imagination on the part of the corporate buyer.  But what if the approach is simply a rational response to the costs of innovating and the benefits of a large balance sheet?  James Price argues the case in a recent Business Insider article citing examples form many different industries.  When looking at your innovation portfolio do you spend enough time considering acquisitions?

Sam, I’ve Got a Feeling We Aren’t in Arkansas Anymore

Walmart has created an innovation lab in San Bruno, California. That’s exactly 1,849 miles from Bentonville. technology review details what makes this lab different and what Walmart hopes to achieve in acquiring a tech start-up and creating the innovation lab. One point that deserves quote here: “Subramaniam credits Walmart for maintaining the startup culture after the acquisition.” If Walmart, notoriously cost, culture, and supply chain focused, can do this what’s stopping your company?

 Mothers of Innovation: Contests and regulations?

Innovation isn’t just a business need, it’s necessary for efficient governance as well.  Thomas Friedman discusses two government initiatives that use limited funds and regulatory power to stimulate innovation.  When schools compete for limited funds in “Race to the Top,” schools submit improvement plans in search of funding awards.  Even those that lose, he argues, often implement their plans without additional funding.  On the regulation side, a rise of fuel efficiency standards means companies invest in innovative technology without the fear of falling behind the profitability of competitors.

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Tearing Down Knowledge Silos: How Changes in Science Should Impact Corporate Innovation

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In a recent feature at Big Think Daniel Honan detailed an ongoing shift within the field of biology – a move away from strictly compartmentalized disciplinary boundaries within large university and public R&D laboratories to smaller, more nimble inter-disciplinary labs. In discussing the featured example, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL), Honan describes the opportunities that mixing scientists of varied background in an open lab will provide. In a number of ways, this new lab paradigm mirrors what needs to happen for corporations to, as stated by Kevin Strange, head of the MDIBL, “speed the pace and reduce the cost of discovery.” In revamping what used to be a seasonal lab into a medium-sized academic unit with a budget of $10 million and a staff of 50 employees of varied background Strange has created a very powerful incubator for innovation.

In the face of continued cut-backs to R&D many leaders in corporate environments are struggling to do more with less. Besides utilizing the principles of open innovation to leverage knowledge outside the firm, perhaps there are some other lessons to be learned from the above example to assist the Osmotic Innovator in building an innovative and productive team.

Beware if this is what your organization looks like.

Unfortunately for the corporate innovator, creating and moving a cross-disciplinary team of 50 to a remote lab to accelerate the pace of innovation isn’t likely to be met with much enthusiasm from your superiors. Start-ups, with narrow budgets and a bee-line focus on commercialization in the current VC culture, are unlikely to have the necessary breadth to emulate this model even if they have advantages in their location. So, how could this model be recreated within the corporate environment AND targeted toward meaningful innovation within a company’s strategy?

–         Hire the right people: it has been discussed on this blog before, but it is important to rehash the importance of building a team having a wide variety of skill sets. However, this principle needs to go further than just hiring one Chemist instead of a Biologist or a fresh out-of-school generalist in place of a 20 year specialist. People of varied backgrounds and viewpoints are also necessary to build a culture that can support innovation.

–         Make collaboration a necessity: the MDIBL forces its scientists to collaborate in order to move science forward and survive in the ‘publish or perish’ atmosphere of academia. The Osmotic Innovator has a number of tools to execute this, from the straightforward, such as arranging project teams to fit the model, or to the indirect, such as rearranging the floor plan to encourage spontaneous interactions.

–         Encourage experimentation: 3M famously does this by giving researchers a set amount of time to pursue personal interests, even without a commitment to such large fractions of time innovation competitions or challenges can build this type of thinking.

–         Find a way to be agile: Process is important, but having the ability to rapidly change focus, whether it be a large initiative or small project, is equally important when trying to improve the capacity to innovate. Be willing to scrap process when reasonable to boost your teams’ effectiveness in responding to new challenges or opportunities.

Organizing and operating exactly like a small research facility is perhaps an idealized view of how a research department or company can operate. However, there are a number of lessons in these models that we can learn from and leverage within our teams to improve the capacity to innovate even without massive budgets or staffs. The next time you’re wondering how a small academic unit scores big with an important discovery in the face of diminishing resources, think instead about how you can emulate their best characteristics within your team.

Innovative or Not: the iPhone 5

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The launch of the new iPhone 5 was met with high levels of anticipation by the technology, investing, and consumer communities. The reaction to the launch has been mixed; with some saying it is a disappointment and others a major success. This makes it an obvious choice for another round of Innovative or Not.

Innovative: The iPhone 5 is thinner, lighter, and faster.  Does this make it innovative?  Since it largely gives the same experience as the iPhone 4S, it’s just more of the same, thus not innovative.  This argument is easy, right?  Not exactly.  The “easy” argument only speaks to disruptive innovation, but what about incremental innovation?  With the iPhone 5, Apple designers made dozens of changes, some of them incontrovertibly innovative.

Changes include a new display technology, integrated LTE voice/data on 1 chip, a smaller, faster processor, a smaller connector, better call quality with new noise cancellation technology, and vastly improved earbuds.  In the OS, we also see new features like Passbook, which ingeniously integrates all tickets, reservations, and store cards in one place.

Of course, some of the individual new features aren’t innovative, but just smart design. However, smart design decisions become innovation when integrated with novel technology, like the display/touch screen. Previously two parts, the new ‘in-cell’ screen technology integrates them into one.  This has never been seen in a phone before.  Like it or not, this is innovation.  It not only makes the screen thinner, but also optically superior.

Combining many smart decisions to achieve a design goal (thinner, lighter, faster) results in an incrementally better product.  When those decisions require innovative technology, you get incremental innovation.  Incremental innovation may only be incremental, but it’s still innovation.

Not Innovative: The long awaited release of the iPhone 5 has come.  But does it have the awe inspiring innovation that we expect from Apple?  To answer let’s first look at the definition of innovative: using or showing new methods or ideas.  Does the iPhone 5 do this?  As a current owner of the iPhone 4 I struggle to find what the new idea or method in the iPhone 5 is.  Yes it is longer, has an extra row of icons, a new accessory jack (which does not allow you to use your current apple devises without a special adaptor), a new camera, and is 4G LTE, but do these things make the phone “innovative”?  Most likely not as most of the competition (Android and Windows) already have these features.  Yes the iPhone 5 is the longest on the market (in which currently multiple apps do not work correctly with), but making it longer does not constitute the phone to be innovative.  The critics seem to agree.  Wired called the iPhone 5 “utterly boring”. The BBC ran a review stating that “Apple’s iPhone launches no longer excite.”  Instead of giving a new look to the iphone, or updated apps, it seems Apple just wanted to out perform their competition without having to think outside the box.  All in all, the iPhone 5 is an improvement, but lacks on the awe inspiring apple innovative which was expected.

Judgement: Not every round of Innovative or Not has a clear winner or a loser, and in taking on the iPhone 5 this is certainly the case. The merits of both cases are strong: yes, the product utilizes a number of new to the industry technologies, boldly deploying them along with a stunningly fast and efficient roll-out. This is impressive. At the same time, few features will excite the average user and some seem destined to annoy: new cables, connection, and size rendering the phone incompatible with most current accessories, and few new to the world ‘features’ since many competitors already carry the feature improvements that seem to headline the product. But, an answer must be found and, as the first writer argues, the iPhone 5 is the picture of incremental innovation. It represents the next step in the evolution of smart phone technology. Perhaps this is a sign that smart phones as well know them are ready to be surpassed by some new technology or format, starting a new race of innovation and growth in the industry.