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issue: January 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Ingredients for Innovation


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by Zach Kaplan, founder and CEO of Inventables LLC

Innovation does not need to be a random, elusive event that only happens now and again when creative sparks fly.

Product innovation can successfully follow a business process just like accounting or marketing, and it can be managed to mitigate the risks associated with creating innovative products. Many proactive companies have already established processes for identifying and managing risks associated with manufacturing, distribution and accounting. Managing the risk associated with innovation is the next frontier. The ability to consistently create products that are differentiated—meaning they stand apart from competitors because of uniqueness—will lead to greater profits over time.
An effective stable innovation process begins when senior management embraces the understanding that innovation is a top business priority and links it to profit. They are able to explain how differentiated products will result in higher margins and increased organizational growth. As a result, employees take action and assume responsibility for developing and following through with new ideas because leaders support and reward innovation.
After innovation is identified as a strategic goal by senior management, I have observed three key elements in successful innovation processes—gathering consumer insights, providing creative stimuli and establishing a bias toward action.
First, designers, engineers and marketers must obtain the necessary resources to feed the innovation process, namely consumer insights. Send the entire team out with ethnographers to gather reality-based consumer insights by observing how consumers actually live and behave. For example, a vacuum cleaner manufacturer client of ours observed that the height of the ceilings in consumer homes is increasing. The company noticed this while watching homemakers struggle to clean high, hard-to-reach places. Armed with this type of insight, product developers can ensure that design decisions are based on what customers are actually struggling with, thereby improving the product in meaningful ways and generating more profit.
Second, successful innovators have a method of continually introducing stimulating materials and technologies that might inspire their team to think about consumer insights in a new light. We have found that focusing on technologies with unexpected properties has the most impact—learning about something unexpected expands one’s understanding of what is possible. Conversely, learning about incremental improvements in technology is not as useful for innovation because they are already assumed to be possible or going to be possible very soon.
For example, a product developer working on cabinet doors that slam loudly might focus their efforts on incremental improvements of bumper and closure materials and mechanisms. A suitable stimulus that might be injected in this process is the gel magnet—a magnet that is soft and squishy. After learning about the unexpected combination of properties of the gel magnet, the product developer may be triggered instead to design the bumper directly as an innovative magnetic closure.
Third, consistent innovators tend to take action. Action clarifies ideas and leads to improvement. At my company, we believe it is best to simulate how one might market a new product shortly after an idea is hatched. During brainstorming sessions, we encourage people to create sketches of concepts and construct rudimentary prototypes. We’ve
even observed teams that use those rough “Frankenstein” prototypes in mock commercials. This helps the people who created a concept refine and communicate it while giving others in the company the opportunity to better understand why the idea will be profitable. The organizational memory that results from prototyping and graphic communication is a key element in the successful innovation process, and a bias toward action is necessary to refine ideas in this powerful way.
In industries where once innovative products have become commodities, companies can mitigate the risk of thinning profit margins by establishing ongoing innovation activities. Innovation does not need to be a fire drill for designers, engineers and marketers; the business risks of innovation can be mitigated by continually injecting consumer insights, providing technological stimuli, and encouraging a bias toward action.

About the Author

Zach Kaplan is the founder and CEO of Inventables LLC, a firm that provides innovation and support services to clients such as Whirlpool, Black & Decker and Bissell. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois and was honored in 2006 by Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry as a Modern Leonardo da Vinci. If you wish to contact Kaplan, e-mail editor@appliance.com

 

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