The Opportunity of Open Innovation

This post could also be titled, “A primer for the left-brained-innovator on how to avoid being demoralized by the paradox of the Infinite Monkey Theorem”.

What’s the point in trying to innovate when everything already exists?
The principles of the Infinite Monkey Theorem are well known, and it is bunkum! Well, at least in practical terms because even a short sonnet would take a lot of ‘time’ to randomly tap-out on a typewriter. However, aside from the improbability numbers being just a bit larger than those Douglas Adams envisages in the infinite improbability drive, it does illustrate a principal close to the heart of Open Innovators—since we live in a rich and populous world of ingenuity and invention, we can appreciate the proposition that whatever technology we need to enable a product probably already exists, or almost exists, somewhere. Great, huh?

Yes, great, but surely there is a philosophical if not a literal catch. The very attribute (repleteness) upon which we rely, in of itself, suggests that you aren’t likely to have a completely new idea, and that therefore innovation* is a fruitless task because whatever you think of has already been done! It is therefore tempting to be a little defeatist, but don’t despair because there are a lot of dimensions to the innovation problem that separate a technology from commercial success. These dimensions are what make innovation possible.

It may be a stretch, but let’s consider N-P-R Space-Time (and I don’t mean National Public Radio).
We exist in X-Y-Z space and ‘move’ through time—four dimensions [perhaps]. Bear with me here—without straying too far into physics I think I can explain the relevance. I similarly think of four primary dimensions of innovation.

What is N-P-R Space? Just like X-Y-Z defines physical space as we know it, N-P-R defines innovation space. N is for consumer Needs; P is for what is technologically Possible; and R is for what we Require to be commercially successful. By defining ‘points’ comprising these three dimensions and at which nothing currently exists we are defining an innovation. In fact, this could be the very definition of innovation—the provision of a solution to a specific consumer need, enabled in a specific manner that makes it attractive technologically, and to both the consumer and the supplier in a new way (‘attractive’ and ‘new’ are the important words here). Since we require all dimensions to be positioned in attractive ways, if we have at least one of these dimensions also positioned in a new way, then we have an innovation.

Time is the same in physical space and in innovation space—for any innovation there is an optimum window of time for its existence that spans the past, present and the future. Timing has to be right for a solution to resonate with a consumer. We use the terms early adopters and early majority to reinforce the idea that time is important and an innovation has different relevance to different consumers at any point in time. Our innovation has to operate within, or on the edge of, the consumers’ world today, tomorrow, and for some reasonable period of time. It may not seem obvious, but we can use time as a differentiator in innovation—how far into the future are we planning? How far ahead of a trend do we dare to be? How far ahead of a trend is the competition prepared to reach?

Think of it like the image above. In our innovation problem space each dimension has three alternative solutions, and each box represents a unique combination of the N-P-R dimensions. Not all points in the space are viable, and therefore the space is typically sparsely populated. Our job as innovators is to characterize the three dimensions, and identify those intersections (the boxes) that represent innovation. Don’t forget the time dimension—which means that this 3-D representation will change with time, and change differently for different consumers.

Without going into details here, when we innovate we explore all four of these dimensions using various methods, processes, and tools. We elaborate dimension N using consumer research; we elaborate dimension P using scientific and technology explorations; and we elaborate dimension R using business modeling and analyses. Trends can help us to understand the time dimension for different kinds of consumer.

But wait, there’s more! For an unlimited time we can give you this functionality and this functionality, and eliminate that problem.
Billy Mays was the pitchman king, and what he always did at the end of an infomercial was mash things together into a package at one great low price. What he was doing was creating a system of separate products so that you take home an innovative bundle of functionality. You could visualize this as taking an N (= clean stuff) and a selection of Ps (liquids, sprays, sticks) together and combining them with a different R (bundle pricing). The most hailed innovation of recent times, the iPhone (generically the smartphone), is no different. It is a bundle of communications and human interface technologies that create a system that is no longer a phone or an MP3 player but instead is…everything.

Bundling functionality in appropriate ways is a powerful tool for the innovator. Looking at it from the consumers point-of-view: it is the difference between a spoon and a spork; it is the difference between three or four devices on the kitchen counter versus one device that can make your entire hot breakfast sandwich. Solving one complex consumer job, or a system of consumer jobs, with one product comprising functional sub-systems (smartphone) is a fifth dimension we can leverage. In doing so we can target an extended set of consumer value parameters, but the complexity also quickly elevates.

…and many companies miss the crux of it all!
Successful innovation usually starts with an insight about people, so start with your N-dimension and get real clarity on what you are trying to do, for whom, and when. Define your hypotheses about what your future consumers currently do, or what they will value in your product in the future.

At the same time develop your understanding of the P dimension for the category in which you are working, getting to grips with how all the competing products work and how the consumer functions. If you are doing it right, the scientific ‘water’ will probably get pretty deep, so you will be well served to get some specialists on your team to stop you from drowning. Develop an understanding of the alternative directions you can go with solutions, and the alternative domains from which solutions might originate, and define your P-hypotheses.

At the same time again, attend to the R-dimension. Look closely at the business model aspects of the market. Analyze what is going on now and what is going to happen in the future. Hypothesize different business alternatives that suit what you are trying to commercially achieve.

And the tricky part that many companies miss completely, but that really is the crux of it all: in real-time collaborate across the three disciplines so that those viable N-P-R intersections (the real innovations) can be identified, explored, and refined.
Without this essential aspect you will end up with products that poorly serve consumer needs, solutions to consumer needs that don’t exist, or products that just can’t make money—sound familiar (HAXLR8R, slide 127+, HBR)?

So left-brainer…go innovate.


*Let us be literal with the word ‘innovation’ and not include the incremental improvement of that which already exists, unless that improvement comes about by new mechanisms, or includes new functionality.

Stuart Wright, PhD