Innovation and Technology – Become a Believer
If, like me, you have spent a lifetime in engineering and remember the days of the valve radio and - dare I say it - life without mobile phones or computers, then you will also have witnessed the impact that industrial design has had on the world of product design.
Clunky, angular and purely functional 'utilitarian' design gradually gave way to softer, ergonomic and organic design. This has benefited everyone, not just because products look better but because they are easier to use and hold and their beauty makes them desirable and aspirational - driving sales and creating strong brand loyalty.
Once the importance of form was understood, product developers engaged with user experience (UX) design and, in the medical sector particularly, human factors (HF). So form, user interface and usability are now covered and should be automatic considerations as part of any major product development. Sorted.
Or is it? There is one other area that has been overlooked and it's one that I believe will become as important as ID, UX and HF as companies of all sizes strive to survive or make their mark in an increasingly competitive world.
I have worked in technical product design for 30 years. I know the way it works. A company will identify that they need a new product. They do some competitor analysis and maybe some market research, followed by internal 'brainstorming' and out pops the next generation widget - with two buttons instead of three and maybe Bluetooth connectivity (just in case)
The problem here is at least threefold. Firstly, there is a real danger of introverted thinking. Secondly, the tendency is to work within a known comfort zone and thirdly, no-one has challenged perceptions. And yet, such a methodology can lead a company to believe that they are innovators when in fact, all they are doing is making evolutionary step changes. A hard way to learn this is to spend significantly on the product development process only to see sales fail to meet expectations. The hardest way to learn is to be blindsided by a competitor (or even a new kid on the block) that suddenly offers a product that is truly disruptive and depletes your market share overnight, only to leave you wondering "why didn't we think of that?"
I would suggest that the answer may lie in the third word of this question. Admittedly, I talk with an engineering bias but I have come to realise that this can apply equally across all areas of a business. Indulge me as an engineer for a moment, so that I can illustrate the point. Engineers are a bright bunch on the whole. They are experts in their field, problem solvers and hence lateral thinkers. But by nature, they need to be focussed and that focus can be a problem. Believing that they know everything about a product range (after all they designed it), or the limitations of a particular technology, can actually close down their imagination. They can also overthink and dismiss an idea before it has a chance to mature. Other disciplines, such as sales and marketing and right up to board level decision makers, will have their own traits that can stifle true innovation. True innovation comes from reimagining, and to do that, the role of external and independent facilitators cannot, I believe, be underestimated.
For an engineer, RFID (radio frequency identification) may be a means to transmit a small bit of data over a short range. It might be possible to trigger something in or attached to a reader, or connect to an App in newer mobile phones but that's about it. Whereas the innovator is already reimagining. RFID in a bottle top, for example, is a whole new playground. A bottle top that can be identified even over a few inches opens a world of point-of-sale opportunities including augmented in-store experiences and even social media based campaigns and gamification. Forget Pokémon - collect 'PopTops' and trade with your friends through interactive billboards. Collect the full set and the next bottle is free. The innovator can hardly contain their excitement.
For me, the power is in generating the ideas first, without compromise or limits, and then and only then, matching the technology in order to achieve it. Sure, some may fall away at this point but if you are innovating well, there will be plenty more ideas to pursue!
But I would like to be clear. Innovation is not just about the whole product. Sometimes, you may be looking for a solution to one particular problem, or to generate IP around a particular application. Again, engineers and technologists often find themselves in this situation and turn immediately to the conventional wisdom of the ‘engineers huddle’. Many times this is, of course, appropriate but it is always worth considering whether a wider group innovation session would be more suitable. Knotty problems such as how to waterproof electronics within existing product constraints, or how to add a sensing technology to a household item could benefit from mechanical, electronics, packaging and marketing specialists – each with a full and clear grasp of the art of the possible within their discipline. They don’t all have to understand the technical detail in order to provide significant, and often surprising levels of creative input. At the start of a project, it is also common to see a specification that is unclear or unfinished – scattered with the dreaded TBDs! This should sound alarm bells. Delays, direction change, specification creep, rising costs and drift away from the original concept are dangers here and it could be that the front end thinking has not been sufficient. Again, consider how an innovation workshop may help here – a relatively small initial outlay could save you (or make you!) a small fortune in the long run.
I have seen sceptics become believers in innovation, and I include myself here. But no-one will become a believer if there is no tangible benefit (and especially not engineers!). One question that is often asked is "what is innovation?" I like to think of it as creating new value, and that falls into two categories. Front end innovation is all about new ideas - using processes, methods and stimulus to generate them and tools to distil them down to leading concepts. This alone can help identify the disruptive force in you market but your big idea alone is not enough. There is a broader aspect to innovation that is focused on implementation and delivering true market value. In a nutshell, innovation helps differentiate and drive growth.
So in conclusion I would like to share a bold prediction with you. The successful product developers of the future will be those who actively engage in innovation - not inwardly looking incremental 'brainstorms' but true, facilitated innovation programmes.
Paul Jennings, Head of Technology Kinneir Dufort
Paul will be at Global Innovation Forum, London, November 2-3