Larry Keeley is the president of Doblin, an innovation strategy firm with offices in Chicago and San Francisco.
A nearly universal misconception about innovation is that the ideal goal is to create the next hot product. That’s why most companies focus their R&D dollars there. But because it’s increasingly easy for other companies to copy any new product, you rarely get a return on those investments. So the principal thing we’ve done to encourage innovation is to help people see that there are actually many types of innovation – product innovation is one type, but so is innovation in customer service, in business models, in networking, and so on.
Consider the Chrysler minivan. Chrysler developed it at a time when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. It created the van as a platform and depended on a network of suppliers to develop family-oriented advances that could be plugged into the platform – video games, removable seats, integral baby seats that fold down so beleaguered parents don’t have to wrestle with them. The suppliers had to bear the cost of the R&D. That’s an example not of product innovation but of networking innovation.
Companies miss out on all sorts of opportunities for innovation because they focus so closely on their competitors. If you map out the different types of innovation activity in a given industry, you’ll almost always find that most organizations are concentrating on the same types – they’re all investing in the same things, just to keep up. There may be lot of activity in customer service innovation, for example, but nothing’s happening in networking.
Mapping innovation activity gives you a sense of the terrain – the peaks and valleys in investments and actions. There’s an old saying that “there’s gold in them thar hills.” Well, there may be even more gold in them thar valleys. You can actually spend less and make more money in innovation if you pay attention to the valleys, those places your competitors have overlooked.