This podcast covers a perspective on innovation that I’ve not fully appreciated. It is how old ideas can inspire really big new ideas. This is drawn from a Harvard Business Review article titled Building an Innovation Factory.
To achieve this they suggest a strategy the authors call knowledge brokering. The system for sustaining innovation is the knowledge brokering cycle and the authors discuss its four parts.”
They describe a knowledge brokering cycle that includes four steps.
The first step is capturing good ideas. They describe good innovators as people who are constantly looking for new and great ideas for any product anywhere in the world. In this sense, they are idea scavengers..
They keep a constant lookout for technologies, products, business practices and business models. These existing or old ideas become a bank of stimulus. There is a systematic process for capturing and organizing these ideas. This is one of the differences between a more informal process which often gets lost when a person leaves the company or moves to a new assignment.
This is more than just a collection process. The knowledge brokers as they call them actually play with possibilities with the ideas that they collect. Often they collect them in physical form, which deepens the understanding and exploration of possibilities.
From my perspective this is an interesting process. The authors refer to external innovation companies like IDEO as being practitioners of this process. You may recall in an earlier podcast I talked about my experience with IDEO. In touring their facilities I had the opportunity to see parts of their knowledge brokering system.
I find this an interesting form of stimulus. Most forms of stimulus that I’ve used focuses on cutting-edge, new developments of various kinds. I can see how combining this with older and successful ideas in other businesses can expand the power of stimulus. Having said that, it does require a systematic, ongoing process for this collection to have integrity and value.
The second step they call keeping ideas alive. In this step the knowledge brokers do not just keep ideas to themselves. They find ways to have others in the company or organization to have the opportunity to become aware of and play with these older and more successful ideas. It varies significantly by company and type of business, but functions that could benefit from this include sales, marketing, and research and development.
IDEO has significant quantities of what one person refers to as the “science of accumulating junk.” This junk is often brought into brainstorming sessions where its value continuously surprises people. One of their engineers at one point had 23 battery-powered toy cars and robots, 13 plastic hotel keys, a flashlight that goes on when the handle is squeezed, and industrial pump, 11 prototypes of a portable computer, 14 prototypes of a computer docking station and other forms of junk. The same company shares its junk and what they call “tech boxes” where they share over 400 different materials and products among their six locations.
The third step is imagining new uses for old ideas. This is where innovation kicks in. It is often a process of exploring how existing/old ideas can be solutions when they are translated to new contexts. Sometimes the solutions can be stunningly simple. There is the story of the Edison inventors. While they were developing the light bulb their experimental light bulbs kept falling out of their fixtures. You may recall at this time that kerosene lamps were the primary light source. One technician seeing the threaded cap on a kerosene bottle wondered whether that would help to hold light bulbs in their sockets. This directly led to the threaded base to the light bulb fitting into the threaded light bulb socket. This is a very simple example of an old solution working in a new context.
Again at IDEO they are set up with design groups working on specific kinds of projects. It is an open space plan. People from other design groups are expected to come into other spaces where they can see projects at various stages of development. This provides the opportunity for solutions that work in on entirely different types of products and contexts.
The fourth step is called putting promising concepts to the test. Customer/consumer testing is the best and proven method for determining commercial potential.
As the authors state so well, “a good idea for a new product or business practice isn’t worth much by itself. It needs to be turned into something that can be tested and, if successful, integrated into the rest of what a company does, makes, or sells.”
I have touched on testing in other podcasts. In future podcasts I will dive deeper into both qualitative and quantitative research. You will recall in a previous podcast I talked about how new products only have a 25% chance of success. One of the things that can be done to increase the chances for success is to conduct high-quality informative research to guide critical decision-making.
People in the innovation business recognize that there is value in sharing a written description of a potential idea with the right customers or consumers. Valuable inputs can be gained regarding the overall interest and the appropriateness of the language used to talk about the idea.
Having said that, the value of research jumps up dramatically when a prototype is shared with customers or consumers. It now goes beyond just words to a physical form. Functionality can be observed and evaluated. You can also gain valuable feedback on other factors like size and effectiveness. This is why the best innovation companies quickly move to a prototype.
There are various forms of prototypes ranging from a complete and actual replica of an idea to what is called a looks like prototype. With this type of prototype there is no actual functionality that can be evaluated since it merely a picture translated into a non-functioning form. Having said that respondents provide far more valuable feedback than when it is only words.
To be clear, research does have value in evaluating potential new products. But as I tell clients and associates, research is never to be confused with the “voice of God.” All research no matter how well done has strengths and weaknesses. As I said earlier, I will dive deeper into these in a later podcast. Suffice it to say at this time that research is best used as one of the factors considered in making a decision. It is more of a guide than a director to the right decision.
So what have we learned from this that can help you in your business? This podcast is focused on older or existing ideas as stimulus for producing new, innovative ideas. From my perspective, old ideas are another kind of stimulus. We talked about the power of stimulus many times.
This podcast also talks about sharing older ideas with a diverse group of people. Again, from quantum idea generation we know how the power of stimulus with a diverse group of people can be a very powerful way of producing breakthrough ideas. This podcast focus on knowledge brokers as another way of doing that.
The bottom line for me is I’m not sure if I would have a systematic process of collecting, retaining, and sharing older or existing ideas. For me, when the need presented itself I would readily dive into an exploration in this area. Solutions that are working in one kind of business can often translate to or be adapted to innovative new products in an entirely different business. For me, this would be part of the stimulus creation process. To be clear, in this stimulus collection I would also include futuristic examples – for example, patent applications.
In this podcast we reaffirm the power of stimulus and diversity in creating breakthrough innovative ideas. Each version of stimulus and diversity needs to be tailored to the unique conditions in each business. This is the nugget of knowledge that I think can help everyone listening to this podcast to be more innovative as they strive to sell more and make more.