Probing the Limits: Where is the Time to Innovate?

August 1, 2006
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Taking time early in a project to use practical innovation techniques will have long-lasting, positive effects on quality.

When developing new products, I've rarely seen a project schedule that had time allocated to innovation. The project schedules were comprised of the following components: Take a concept and design it, test it, fix the problems, manufacture it and ship it.

Lately, I've spent a great deal of time learning about innovation and have found that innovation theory has a great deal in common with quality theory.

I've learned that innovation rarely comes from a flash of genius. Thomas Edison said it best: "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." What makes this exciting is that everyone can be innovative if they dedicate the time and effort. Although everyone is capable of innovation, few companies allocate the time and resources necessary at the beginning of a project to activities that develop innovative ideas.

So what leads to innovation? First of all, they are practical activities. This means sitting around and waiting for a flash of genius probably won't help-sitting around rarely accomplishes anything.

These are some practical activities that do lead to innovative results: Trying to connect ideas that appear to be dissimilar; brainstorming and picking the best ideas; seeking help from other knowledgeable resources; trying wacky ideas; traveling to new places that allow you to see things in a different way; learning from mistakes; working on things where you have a high talent or interest; not being afraid to do things differently; carefully observing; challenging old rules that may no longer apply and may be preventing new solutions; and spending time on presenting new ideas to make it easier for others to accept.

There is a major opportunity to achieve new heights in quality when more time is invested in the first stages of a project. A project that invests up front in finding a more innovative concept to develop will have a much greater pay-off.

I recently experienced this first hand when my company test marketed a line of new products that I thought were great. It turns out our first customers didn't share my feelings. As a result, I was angry, depressed and discouraged.

To correct the issues, we had to take a significant amount of time to change the product and now I'm behind schedule. That was frustrating but I'm beginning to see that making a big mistake in my initial product concept was a blessing.

Because our product was off the mark, it forced customers to explain what they really wanted. We learned a great deal of valuable knowledge from our mistakes. Had I been lucky and got the product just right on my first try, I would have stayed on schedule, but also remained ignorant about what my customers want. It would have hurt me in the long run to skip the time-consuming step of making mistakes that lead to great market insight and innovative changes to the product. Looking back, my mistake was not that I didn't get the product right on the first try. My mistake was not scheduling time for innovative things to happen.

My project fell into the trap that most projects fall into. Now that I've taken the time to use innovation methods, I'm late-and that has impacted my business plan-but I think I now have a product that is much better than my original concept and my competitor's products. I'm also starting to challenge the old marketing adage that the first product to market has a huge advantage. I guess if you are first to market and lucky to get the product right, you will see a windfall of business. When I've seen this happen, though, lucky companies tend to really struggle in the long run because they have a poor understanding of their customers' needs.

When you start your next project, consider adding some significant innovation time at the beginning of the project. It will probably lead to the project taking longer, but the innovation that leads to higher quality results will make that time look insignificant in the long run.

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