Being a frugal innovator


Apple and Google recently created a buzz as they launched their latest phones with all sorts of new features.

Improved cameras, fingerprint sensors and gizmos to save battery life were among the offerings to win over the public.

Slick designs and major international product launches may make innovation seem like a sophisticated practice that’s easy for companies with big budgets and plenty of time, but what if you don’t have that luxury.
The reality is that some of the most successful innovators get significant results without outspending their rivals. For example, Procter & Gamble minimizes research and development (R&D) investment and time by getting product teams to tap into the creativity and problem-solving efforts of outside entrepreneurs, universities and start-ups.

Apple has launched some of the world’s most successful products despite spending less on R&D (as a percentage of revenues) than many of its competitors. And companies such as Amazon and Google have used quick, low-cost experiments to quickly gain consumer knowledge and to identify and scale winning ideas, while also to pulling the plug on white elephant projects.

Most companies need a practical approach to innovation that can be used regularly to get good results.

More than 15 years of client work and research has taught me there’s a middle way between ad hoc initiatives and building expensive innovation factories. We developed a system I call the Thrifty Innovation Engine (TIE), which offers companies an alternative approach.

It’s based on the view that innovation is simply fresh thinking that comes from inside or outside of the organization, combined with actions to create market results through higher revenue, or lower cost.

Here’s how the process worked for a software client. This firm’s approach to innovation veered from rushing emergency product upgrades for single clients to funding ‘new venture’ business units that looked well beyond a two-year planning horizon. Neither approach delivered the expected business results, but they did generate plenty of politics and expenses to boot. We helped the client implement a TIE – a 120 day innovation germination and commercialization process.

Phase 1 – 10 days

Assessment, priority-setting and getting a team together

This was vital, as management didn’t have a clear picture of spending, or accountability. A small team of product managers, programmers, financial analysts and marketers looked at ideas and bucketed them according to potential customer appeal, capabilities, financial returns and ease of commercialization. The team then chose five ideas for customer feedback.

Phase 2 – 20 days

Market validation

We introduced the five ideas to 16 strategic and prospective clients and four industry leaders through a series of sessions. Our goal was to find out how each idea met customer needs, what features were important and how emerging technological trends could be used. Two of the ideas generated significant customer interest and were placed in the commercialization pipeline.

Phase 3 – 75 days

Commercialization

A small and highly motivated group of programmers were dedicated to each idea, along with a budget and internal mandate. This wasn’t a sideline project starved for internal support. The core project group continued to be accountable and provide input but were told to use a minimalist touch. Low cost, speed and client consultation were guiding principles. For example, the team was encouraged to use lean methods such as open source tools. Each team also collaborated with the clients to minimize risk and assure market acceptance.

Phase 4 – 15 days

Final steps

The team reviewed the process and what they learned to fine tune the framework, which included committed resources, defined practices, metrics and knowledge management policies. A system was also set up to track the business results and customer feedback and to cycle these findings back into the TIE knowledge bank.

Developing an innovation engine like this won’t guarantee your firm becomes the next Apple or Google, however it can help your efforts become more productive and ensure your great ideas are market driven and not long shots.

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