I remember an important lesson emerging from some work I did with a company that makes products used during construction of large infrastructure projects – roads, railways, telecoms installations and the like.  The project had two objectives.  The core objective was to help introduce a structured, repeatable process for innovation.  The second was to use this introduction to find a “breakthrough innovation” that they could bring quickly to market.

These objectives are pretty common in our work and we planned to follow a tried and trusted method involving clarifying the mission, gathering brain fuel, assembling a diverse team for brainstorming, going through a filtering and selection process, and then putting an innovation team to work on exploring the favoured ideas.

This was all fine until we got to the filtering and selection stage of this project.  It became clear that the vast majority of the ideas put forward were aimed at trying to introduce something very new and different in terms of functionality – product ideas that were intended to do something that wasn’t yet being done.  This meant that the ideas had many uncertainties in terms of customer desirability, technical feasibility, and financial viability.  It was during this discussion that it became clear that the senior team weren’t really up for breakthrough innovation in this sense – despite what they had said at the project outset!  Not only that but the realisation dawned that with so many uncertainties it was unlikely that any of the ideas before us could be brought to market quickly.

Thankfully, however, we did have one interesting idea that was about adapting an existing product so that it could be delivered off-the-shelf, rather than with the four-week lead-time that was currently the norm for their customers.  To be clear, the product did nothing different in terms of its function.  The innovation was in determining new ways of working on-site and in the factory that enabled next-day delivery – a huge advantage in the marketplace.  This idea was much easier for the senior team to support (many fewer uncertainties) and led to the product being highly sought after by all leading industry distributors.