Various: "Innovations: How to Nurture, Respond, and When to Adopt"

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March 2009

We often think of inventions as something created by one person from nothing. In reality, new ideas are usually the result of teams working together and reassembling already existing concepts. When these reassembled pieces are put to use, they become innovations, new ways of doing things.

Ideally, we work in an organizational climate that encourages innovation, and all innovations come from within our organization. But how do we establish that climate or culture? How do we respond when peer or competitive organizations innovate and impact our environment? And whether they come from internal or external sources, how do we evaluate innovations and make a decision about whether or when to adopt or implement them?

In How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), Andrew Hargadon points out that the only consistent finding in research into innovation is that there is no consistent finding and little evidence that innovative behavior is innate. Hargadon points instead to the importance in innovation of networking, bridging between weakly linked communities, and assembling new ideas from pieces of what was already known. This can be facilitated by work practices that capture good ideas and keep them alive, and a culture that includes learning, helping others, and being able to ask others for help. While we think of Thomas Edison as a lone inventor, he was most productive while working with a group of about 15 other innovators in his Menlo Park lab.

Taking risks to explore new ideas is only the first part of innovation. The second part is determining how to make the best use of these ideas. Clayton M. Christensen, Scott D. Anthony, and Erik A. Roth identify two types of innovation in Seeing What’s Next: Using the Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change (Harvard Business School Press, 2004) and based on this, provide ideas on how organizations can strategize about innovation. Organizations establish a position with their products, and move along a growth path with those products, based on their resources, processes, and values. Sustaining innovation involves existing organizations developing better or enhanced products for existing customers or stakeholders. Following this path, there may be markets that these organizations miss, and there may be consumers who want less than they offer.

Disruptive innovation produces new products, finds new markets, or reshapes existing markets or organizations. New products can bring new consumers into the market, or can undercut and take consumers from existing markets. Christensen et al give several examples of this from higher education. The University of Phoenix and Concord Law School created new markets by using technology to reach non-consumers who had not participated in traditional higher education formats. Community colleges can provide focused education, and undercut the existing market of traditional residential campus-based education. Corporate training can also provide focused training for consumer groups that were overshot by traditional broader business administration programs and undercut their market. Christensen et al see a possible future disruption in higher education of branding by instructor – a famous author or professor – replacing branding by university. In this case, institutions would have three alternatives: ignore the disruption, adopt the disruption by attracting famous faculty, or be disruptive themselves and seek out alternative new products, consumer groups or markets. While not mentioned by Christensen et al, the ‘no frills’ colleges now getting some attention may also be a disruptive innovation.

Jackie Fenn and Mark Raskino address when to adopt innovations in Mastering the Hype Cycle: How to Choose the Right Innovation at the Right Time (Harvard Business Press, 2008). The Hype Cycle curve evolved through Fenn’s observations of technology innovations while working at Gartner. It is built on the integration of Everett Rogers’ S curve, (Diffusion of Innovatons, 5th ed., Free Press 2003) in which new ideas or products go through four stages (embryonic, emerging, adolescent, and mainstream), with a rate of adoption that increases and then decreases (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations ) and the bell curve of enthusiasm, which also increases and then decreases. There are five stages in the Hype Cycle:

  1. Innovation trigger – initial interest in the innovation
  2. Peak of inflated expectations – limited application of the innovation, but media attention that generates unrealistic and excessive expectations for what the innovation will deliver
  3. Trough of disillusionment – the innovation falls out of favor due to failure to meet inflated expectations
  4. Slope of enlightenment – continued development, refinement and application of the innovation by some organizations
  5. Plateau of productivity – actual benefits of the innovation are demonstrated and the innovation is more widely adopted

With the Hype Cycle there are four traps regarding timing of adoption of an innovation: adopting too early, giving up too soon, adopting too late, and hanging on too long once the innovation has lost value. Organizations need to be able to assess the value of the innovation to the organization, the maturity of the innovation, and the culture of the organization with regard to taking risks. The innovation should be evaluated in terms of what function it serves, not as an end in itself.

There are several dimensions to successful innovation. An organization needs to know itself, as well as being able to evaluate and choose wisely, to develop and use innovations most effectively.