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Ideas Made to Matter

Innovation

5 questions to ask before making the leap to innovate

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The USS Enterprise was built in the 1950s, commissioned in 1961, and retired in 2013.

That means that the U.S. naval aircraft carrier was being designed "probably before the start of the Korean War," said MIT Sloan senior lecturer Steven Spear, an expert on managing complex development, designs, and delivery.

"Certainly before the Vietnam War, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, before the Navy had to support land-based operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, before anyone had even the glimmer of a possibility of a portable photocopier, let alone a desktop PC," Spear said. "The internal systems, the weaponry, the missions, 50 years later nothing was the same. [It was] designed and rebuilt on the fly."

But reinventing and innovating while keeping an existing enterprise afloat isn’t easy. In a new white paper “Making the leap: Creating new, breakthrough platforms while sustaining existing ones,” Spear proposes five questions an established organization should ask itself as it pursues new innovations.

Is your innovation sustaining or disruptive?

When thinking about innovation, Spear writes, consider the classic research from Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, and its examination of the disk drive industry.

“Disk drives that provided faster access to increasing volumes of data were sustaining,” Spear writes, meaning the innovation “offers better performance along measures that are already important to existing clientele.”

Smaller disk drives, though initially viewed as inferior in speed and size, actually were “disruptive,” Spear writes, because they were able to be installed in more convenient areas for users, like laptops and workstations.

Lesson: A “stand-alone” organization could be created to help propel that disruptive innovation, and set new metrics for success, Spear writes.

Does your innovation require a change in collaboration?

Using research on microchip manufacturing from Harvard Business School professor Rebecca Henderson, Spear writes that an organization needs to understand whether its innovation will require new relationships.As companies aimed to build smaller and thinner microchips, there were no collaboration issues because responsibilities had already been allocated and communication and coordination were clear, Spear writes.

“Other innovations changed the necessary patterns of interaction,” Spear writes, such as bringing microchip components actually into contact with one another.

“New interdependencies needed to be managed, but the organization’s existing structures and routines did not enable that well,” Spear said.

Lesson: In this case a “subsidiary organization” could be set up to test new collaboration efforts.

Is your innovation ready for mainstreaming?

Stiff competition among only a few competitors sets up an environment where organizations can either spectacularly succeed or catastrophically fail, Spear writes, so it’s critical to make sure you don’t fall flat trying to be first off the line.

Consider the jet engine industry.

“Temptations were great to put the latest and greatest new advances into the development flow, to win some performance advantage,” Spear writes. “The problem was, if an advance wasn’t mature enough, it wasn’t a source of advantage.”

Lesson: The solution, Spear writes, is have “technological readiness” tests, through which new concepts can be tried out in a separate “swim lane” from an organization’s main development track.

How ambitious are your breakthrough ambitions?

A lot happened in the eight years between President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 commitment to putting a man on the moon, and the “giant leap for mankind” taken by Neil Armstrong in 1969.

“One could argue,” Spear writes, “that there never was a single giant leap. Rather, the objective of getting men to the moon and back safely, was broken into millions of small steps, an incredible number of micro-innovations that collectively allowed advances in propulsion, navigation, communication, life support, etc., that cumulatively allowed the appearance of a giant leap.”

While an organization might be able to clearly define an ambition, there’s going to be different learning cycles to address new issues that come up during the process.

Lesson: Consider an “incubator” approach, Spear writes, which allows for smaller commitments and faster learning cycles.

What new ideas are you testing, and how are you testing them?

Spear writes that pharmaceutical manufacturing is at the intersection of cutting-edge research and idea testing.

One unnamed firm decided a more structured approach was needed when it came to testing new drugs.

“Rather than generating ‘good ideas’ and then testing chemical compounds to see how they worked, they added a new discipline,” Spear writes. “Before testing any compound, first they declared why they were generating that particular molecule, explaining what it was that gave them confidence that it would behave in certain ways when tested.”

The result was the researchers hit a milestone twice as fast as they normal would, while only going through one-third of the “design-make-test cycles” they normally complete.

Lesson: Before testing ideas, Spear writes, justify the test by looking not only at what works, but also “what underlying thinking is sound, and what is not.”

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