It is generally understood that an innovation effort, along with the innovator, in an established company needs protection. How that protection is provided is another thing.
How protection is provided to innovations may be similar to the dilemma parents face in their attempts to regulate how much, and when, their kids are exposed to the various realities of life. Too much protection can leave a child dependent and ill prepared. Too little protection can push a child beyond what they can handle emotionally and psychologically.
The same can be said for nascent innovations. On one hand, under exposure to the external circumstances and realities of the intended user can stunt the development of the innovation. On the other hand, over or premature exposure to these realities risks a “failure” so visible that few have the persistence or courage to learn from it.
Our society’s increasing propensity to give its children antibiotics at the first sign of a cold or flu was the topic of a recent conversation I had with a veteran innovation sponsor and “midwife.” Both of us were wondering outloud whether we are, in effect, weakening the next generation’s resistance to disease. It is a difficult dilemma for parents these days. With all the pharmacological options available to us—even anti-bacterial soaps—are we, in effect, contributing to a quietly developing longer term problem to address a short term fear for our children’s health? Might many of us as innovators be guilty of something similar with innovations brewing in the labs and internal development efforts of our companies?
Gaining and maintaining the right amount of exposure at the right time for the iterative nurture and development most innovations is an art, requiring the experienced counsel of innovation veterans. Over exposure to internal influences and under exposure to external realities can kill an innovation before it has the time to see the light of day. However, over exposure to external realities and under exposure to internal influences can stimulate the “not-invent-here syndrome” and various other “autoimmune” responses. So how do you find the right balance?
One of our clients in the consumer food business looks to what they refer to as “discovery channels” to provide the right balance of hard external realities and sheltered nurture for their not-quite-ready-for-prime-time innovations. In this case the “discovery channel” is a retailer whose requirement for “turns” is modest enough and who is willing to allow the manufacturer direct contact with their customers and floor personnel to enable unmediated access to feedback.
One of the advantages of such a “discovery channel” is that the feedback is real, not simulated. Another advantage is that a “natural” demand can be more realistically estimated at least for the early stages of a new product’s introduction, as consumers discover the product more or less on their own. In other words, “discovery channels” can provide the innovating company a better signal-to-noise ratio, while avoiding the distorting influences of the typically promotional atmosphere of the mass marketplaces.
While the form of the “discovery channel” this consumer business uses may be more applicable to consumer package goods businesses, the principles are potentially applicable in other types of industries as well. Software companies use so-called “beta-sites” to test their programs in use. Equipment manufacturers use “pilot” projects to gain experience that can be trusted. Whatever the particular form of “discovery channel,” finding such a venue for each innovation can provide the innovation with sufficient experience in establishing its own identity; it can then hold its own in the inevitable sibling rivalry for resources within the company’s established businesses.
This article by Lanny Vincent originally appeared in Innovating Perspectives in November 2003. For other issues of our newsletter, please go to www.innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.
© 2013 Vincent & Associates, Ltd.