(Originally posted on The Innovation Workgroup’s LinkedIn page, 26th August, 2015)
In India, I have encountered a fair degree of impatience and doubt with regard to the innovation process. Some companies just want an instant answer, not a process that will lead to a superior solution. Some want to identify a customer for their existing invention, not a fresh invention that will satisfy customers. And, of course, everyone wants an inexpensive engagement from the innovation consultant!
A blog post by Ralph Ohr helped me to understand some of the reasons for these preferences, which are not particular to India, but are seen more frequently here than in many other countries.
Ohr points out that most companies start with an idea, then they create a solution, and only then do they try to find a customer. This is not ideal, but it is the reality in many firms, especially in the software industry.
Read more about the ideal approach to innovation
Ohr’s ideal scenario is the same one that we advocate: an approach that begins with need identification first and then calls for an invention to address the need. This approach is widely known as Design Thinking. Why do so many Indian companies have a hard time with this ideal approach?
The truth is that the front end of innovation is messy – the term of art is “fuzzy” – and managers in India are trained, like all good engineers, to look for precision and certainty, not messiness and risk. An innovation project should begin with exploration, not invention. And what is exploration but a leap into the unknown?
The risks of exploration are real. The cost of exploration can be significant. There is no guarantee that the explorer will find anything of value during his journey. Even if a promising territory is discovered, there is no way to know in advance whether the sponsor of the journey will be able to exploit the discovery.
Ohr suggests that only wealthy companies, especially those that are consumer rather than engineering driven, typically invest in exploratory innovation projects. I beg to differ. We have seen great results at all sizes of firms, from massive to tiny, that use the Design Thinking approach. Even dyed-in-the-wool engineering teams with little previous customer exposure have made breakthrough discoveries by using the tools of world-class innovation.
To compare the two approaches to innovation, read Ohr’s blog post, linked here. Then decide which one will work best in your organization. Your comments would be most welcome.
Additional reading on this topic: One Size Doesn’t Fit All Innovation