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How to turn breakthrough innovation ideas into innovation success

Just recently, innovation-3 had an internal workshop on “How to turn breakthrough ideas into an innovation success.”

From our perspective, the search for breakthrough innovations in products, services and processes and Business Model Innovation (which surely is a breakthrough) has climbed on the top spot of the innovation agenda.

We’ve got data points to support this thesis: Firstly, we’ve got an increasing number of projects in our portfolio where clients have asked us to “set breakthrough innovation ideas up for success”. And secondly, an article series co-written by innovation-3’s Frank Mattes (the first two parts can be found HERE and HERE) has received a good deal of interest in the Social Web.

In our workshop, we focused on fleshing out the key components of a “set-up for success”. We found four cornerstones.

Cornerstone 1: Build on ambidexterity

Turning the big, breakthrough idea into an innovation success requires an “exploration” mind-set that is totally different from an “exploitation” mindset that is appropriate for incremental innovation (more information on this can be found in the articles mentioned above). So the realization of the breakthrough idea needs to be separated from the usual innovation management. Seven ideas on how leading firms achieve this can be found in the second of the articles mentioned above.

Cornerstone 2: Build on Design Thinking

In 1969, Honeywell launched the H316 kitchen computer that was supposed to produce gourmet recipes for the busy housewife. If she wanted to build dinner around broccoli, she’d have to code in 0001101000. The kitchen computer would then suggest suitable foods from its database by a series of flashing lights. It had a few recipes and a cutting board built in. Apparently, no H316 was ever sold (more information and an image can be found HERE).

What do we learn from this story? Not every “breakthrough” idea turns into a breakthrough innovation as seen from the customer’s view. Fortunately, a solid method for aligning ideas with what potential customers see as innovation has become Good Practice: Design Thinking. Using this approach, your innovation team engages potential customers already at a very early stage with mock-ups and prototypes, deepens its understanding about what really makes up a successful innovation from the customer’s view, learns which route to take – and avoids costly mistakes (More information on how to integrate customers in the innovation process can be found HERE and HERE .

Cornerstone 3: Manage the funnel appropriately

Big, breakthrough ideas are not simply product-line extensions, geographic expansions, or minor technological improvements. So most likely, there are multiple dimensions of uncertainty: Potential customers are often mere possibilities; value propositions are just guesses; underlying technologies are unproven; supply chains are not defined. Standard “waterfall” Stage Gate thinking will not work in a scenario of high-risk innovation for two reasons:

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  • Its inherent paradigm of systematically minimizing innovation risk is not appropriate for a setting in which risks are multidimensional and frequently interdependent.
  • Just checking feasibility form the customer’s / market side in the early phases is not sufficient. How can the customers judge on something that is new to the world without fully understanding it? Design Thinking needs to be applied (see above) – and in many cases, the results of the Design Thinking process requires to go back to the drawing board to come up with an innovation that is complete and valuable from the customer’s perspective.


So how should the funnel be managed? In an ambidextrous set-up, as described above, a well-defined phased approach needs to be set up with one big difference compared to standard Stage Gate: All relevant dimensions (customer, technology, supply chain, financial, service, …) are worked on simultaneously, from the start on – in growing level of detail / diminishing level of uncertainty. The breakthrough idea will be moved to the next phase only when all of dimensions have been worked out satisfactorily to the required level of detail (e.g. a “concept”). This way, one avoids ending up with a perfect technical solution that unfortunately doesn’t fit into the customer’s “jobs to be done”, his pain points and his expected benefits.

Cornerstone 4: Use viral communication for market preparation and launch

When Apple announces a breakthrough product, the world listens. Before, during and after the announcement event, there is incredible buzz. However, only few firms enjoy the same level of public interest as Apple does.

Nevertheless, also your firm has access to a global marketing and presales machine for little money. It only requires some thinking and little investments to find out which bloggers and power user need to be engaged, which Twitter hash tags should be used, how YouTube videos should be set up so that they generate a viral attention for your firm’s breakthrough innovation – and how all these activities should be interconnected with “classical” sales and communication activities (By the way: Why not put a link into the email signature saying: “There is something big coming up” that links to a teaser video on YouTube or why not add teaser videos to your firm’s conference presentations?).