abstract innovation
Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Lately, I’ve been paying attention in this blog to examples of innovation that may not be the first on the process engineers’ radar — such as from surfer Kelly Slater or Ford’s use of tequila plant fibers in partnership with Jose Cuervo. I love finding innovative thinking in a range of places. I also recommended a book examining innovation driven by “misfits.”

Yet I’ve realized I haven’t yet encouraged a revisiting of the theoretical underpinnings of innovation, or a consideration of the barriers to this type of thinking. While theory can be dry, in the case of innovation it can make for interesting reading or “checklists” to what organizations should and should not be doing.

A good example comes from a McKinsey discussion of “strategic and organizational factors” that separate successful innovators from the rest of the field. Authors de Jong, Marston and Roth argue that while there is “no proven formula for success, particularly when it comes to innovation,” there are several attributes that can enable innovation.

John F. Kennedy led the space race with choose and aspire. Today, we can discover hidden needs and evolve through innovation by listening to our customers or business personnel in normal day-to-day activities.

Barriers to Innovation

Of course, on the other side, there are barriers to innovative thinking or to thinking conventionally for unconventional ideas. These would be strategic, organizational, and cultural.
So, then, how do innovators move forward and find success. I see it as a three-step process:

  1. Determine where to focus…Listen to the market
  2. Decide what to prioritize…Ask the market and your team
  3. Delineate implementation plans…Define the projects and roadmap

The effort that goes into an innovation can be startling at times — much like the years it has taken me to perfect head stands and side crow though I practice yoga two times per week. For example, consider the work of Pratt & Whitney. They spent more than $10 billion developing a new aircraft engine. The 30 years it took is 15 times longer that the gestation period for an elephant. Yet, they continued.

The resulting engine burns 16% less fuel and makes 75% less noise. Reading the Bloomberg article, I noticed the same process over and over again: concept, sharing of information, lab study, scale-up and finally commercialization.

Now the firm has 70 buyers in 30 countries for its “deceptively simple yet fiendishly different” idea.

Inventive Minds

We can’t ever know where that next innovative idea is coming from. Do you know of Lowell Wood? Yet he’s “America’s most prolific inventor.” He has 1085 patents already with another 3000 inventions in the queue at the US Patent and Trademark Office.

He is so busily inventing solutions to the world’s problems, he has surpassed Thomas Alva Edison who famously patented breakthroughs in communications, movies, lighting and power distribution.. Edison earned his last patent — no. 1084 — on 16 May 1933 for a device that bonded two metals via electrolysis.
Edison’s record stood until 7 July 2015 when Wood patented his “Medical Support System” device installing video conferencing and data transmission into medical gear so that a patient can leave a hospital and use the machines at home.

His strategy for innovative thinking? “There’s really nothing to it all. You just read, and you remember what you read.”

You’re off to a good start, of course, reading this blog. Share your examples of innovation with me. I’d love to read them!