Product Innovation – A a non-linear item

Doing product innovation is a tricky affair, irrespective of organizations. Especially for product R & D organizations working on ‘end-of-the-life-cycle’ items, this becomes even more challenging.  Having associated with many innovation practices, councils and approaches I have had my own share of successes and failures. Want to share some experience in form of this post.

To start with innovation is a non-linear process, where predicting output is not very obvious. It is way different from linear activities as a part of software development life cycle, where activities and outputs are very well defined. Even though there are some changes expected from the customer (during development), it can be managed as long as risk management and stakeholder buy-in is place to a larger extent. On the other hand, nobody can predict who, when and how a new innovative idea can emerge. It doesn’t matter about the experience, background or designation; innovation cannot be planned but can only be nurtured by inspirational approach.

In my experience I have seen innovation as both top down and bottom up activity. In top-down typically it is driven by the senior leadership as a special initiative, task-force or specific activities by having a well defined approach. In such cases, many leadership teams take the decision of making it as a ‘project team’ approach where individual leaders and team members are ‘appointed’ and they are asked to take a deterministic approach towards new idea creation. In case of results from innovation becoming critical from innovation, it becomes as a ‘force’ from the top where people are asked to innovate by applying of pressure. In such cases I have hardly seen innovation happening.

On the other hand, when innovation is taken as a bottom-up approach I have seen it working pretty well. For example, I used to work on a consumer device which was initially considered as a standalone entity. Before even cloud or internet-of-things existed, some of us had the conviction that this consumer device should connect with some kind of server (because terminology of cloud was totally unaware of) which can push interesting contents into the device for consumption. As firmware engineers we built initial working prototype which demonstrated the so called ‘cloud-to-device’ functionality by fetching information from the remote server. Then we also got an opportunity to showcase in internal conference and well recognized by senior management.

However the real-fun began when we started interacting with product management folks to take it as a feature in the mainline product. The product marketing folks came back saying they had similar idea in the past, which received lukewarm response from their initial customer survey, hence they may not be interested in taking it as a formal requirement in the product. It was not a easy thing to digest as we have put our heart-on-soul to make the idea fly, but eventually came in terms with reality. Of course, when the cloud computing became a differentiation in business, it was implemented as a big ticket project. It was interesting to be part of idea generation, developing prototype, showcasing in internal conferences and making sincere selling attempts to internal stakeholders, even though it was not accepted as a ‘formal’ item for implementation.

What are the lessons learnt from this whole exercise:

  • Innovation works well when it is driven bottom-up with lots of passion behind it
  • Having a great idea and making a prototype definitely helps to generate initial buy-in as working prototype builds a lot of credibility
  • All ideas might not have buy in from product marketing folks as they have an altogether a different point of view about product and their features. On the other hand one cannot take the route of understanding the business needs first, which might actually block the creative process
  • Innovation is a non-linear activity where there is no success or failure. The biggest reward as an engineer is all about hitting upon an idea and evangelizing it among the organization and give a best shot to make it as a success. One in hundred might receive the success and visibility but it is worth giving it a shot.

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