How Do We Define and Evaluate “Innovation”?

How Do We Define and Evaluate “Innovation”?

How Do We Define and Evaluate "Innovation"?

Are you just raising the bar or are you breaking new ground?

As a designer working at a firm that contributes to every facet of design, I take great pleasure in following other designers’ work. So many designers in the fields of education, healthcare, architecture, industrial design and even information technology have adopted Tim Brown’s (the CEO of IDEO) concept of “Design Thinking,” which sheds light on the harsh reality that it is sometimes difficult to find design that truly offers a competitive advantage over another – in fact, most self-proclaimed design solutions often become somewhat ubiquitous.

And recently, it appears to me, that the majority of designers (based on my recent sampling of innovative products in the marketplace) are focusing their efforts on re-imagining existing products rather than creating new products. Why was that? Where was the invention? It got me thinking, and I did some research.

Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School has done some phenomenal work on innovation types and how they differ. To help illustrate, each type of innovation, I’ll use an example most designers pulling all-nighters can relate to: coffee.

  • Sustaining innovations in products or services are incremental. They raise the bar enough to stay in the game. Take “dark roast coffee” as an example. When introduced, it was a considered a “step up” from regular coffee. Its introduction expanded an existing product line, ensured a new, steady stream of revenue and offered consumers more options (because consumers nowadays love the idea of options).
  • Breakout innovations significantly advance products or services within an existing market. Using our coffee example, drip coffee pots made it easier to enjoy fresh brewed coffee right from home or at the office, but you needed to make an entire pot. Single service pods, such as the well-known Keurig, proved to be a breakout innovation allowing one to indulge in a single cup of fresh brewed coffee. Sales in general support this observation (As much as designers like to drink java by the pot).
  • Disruptive innovations change the game. According to Christensen, they are disruptive because “they disrupt the current market behavior, rendering existing solutions obsolete, transforming value propositions, and bringing previously marginal customers and companies into the center of attention.” And keeping with our coffee theme, we are all aware of how Starbucks completely transformed the coffee market, taking the once low-priced cup of coffee and transforming it into a social experience with the consumer at its core. From the coffee options, to the customer experience and loyalty programs, and even with paying homage to coffee artistry. (Starbucks Year in Review 2015: Innovations)

The question I challenge all designers with is this: How much time are you devoting to each type of innovation in your work? Are your ideas diversified enough to gain traction in the open market?

Are you simply “tweaking” designs to stay in the game? Sustaining innovation may not be glamorous, but everything can be improved and refreshed now and again. Plus, if you don’t improve upon a design, someone else will and reap the revenue reward.

Are you devoting enough creative energy to breakout innovation? This may require additional personnel and overhead, but to remain a creative thought leader, you need to set aside time to focus on next generation ideas.

Or, do you invest in disruptive innovation research and development to create a product or service that creates a totally new market? True, this is the most risk-filled path, but also one that offers the most reward.

With more mergers and acquisitions than ever before, companies are working together to form diverse, strategic alliances that foster business models that support innovation and creativity, giving designers the ability to forge creative pathways and bring ideas and products to market.

So, be a disruptor – or be a dinosaur!

Tags: design strategy, Design Disruptors, innovation, Design Thinking
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