Tag Archives: breakthrough innovation

Looking for the Breakthrough Innovation


I just finished a two-day Creative Problem Solving workshop with a group of highly technically proficient people.  The group was engaged and worked very hard not only collecting information and interviewing customers prior to and the again throughout the intense final 2 days.  The team did a great job sharing their field immersion learning points, generating lots of “problems”  to solve, and developing many logical “idea cards” (which define how to solve the most important problems).

Many of the idea cards were specific and addressed unique problems that the group carefully identified.  Some of them were tactical, and addressed various performance shortcomings they learned about from their interviews.  One of the participants came to me in the middle of the session saying “these are all good ideas, but I don’t think I see some ‘breakthrough’ innovations that could allow us to leapfrog our competition.”  This was a reasonable comment.  It made me think about the answer.

Not all Innovation = an iPAD

The Creative Problem Solving Process we use at Xavier Leadership Center guides people through an array of fact-finding activities that help them look at their business through an external lens.  Listening to customers is pretty important, and the issues they raised, whether large or small represent things worth paying attention to.  If the customer is right in their concern, then it is probably worthy of being addressed on its own merit.   As a consequence, some of the ideas generated in a CPS workshop might seem overly tactical.

However, we are also trying to get ourselves to begin thinking about underlying trends or themes that lead us to root cause insights. Perhaps your sales process creates a set of false expectations that later manifested themselves in customer dissatisfaction; or there might be an installation and training solution that needs complete re-thinking.

Building Momentum

A bit later in our workshop, the teams were asked to build a series of one year improvement initiatives based on the idea cards they generated.  One broad theme was about customer service, another was related to installation, and a third theme area related to the sales process.   We asked the teams to select the idea cards they felt were most impactful, and then create a one year action plan.   By this time, we had as a group discussed the topic of game changing ideas compared with others that simply allow you to achieve parity.  After a while, one of the participants came to me and remarked “you know . . . when I first looked at each of the idea cards by themselves, I didn’t think we were looking at breakthroughs.   But when you start to combine several of them together, it is a completely different story!”

Isn’t that often the case?   In fact the entire notion of continuous improvement is about creating momentum though a series of ongoing small innovations with a similar trajectory.  This too can produce sustainable competitive advantage, especially if you can learn to maintain a fast pace to your innovation agenda. Also, taking many small steps has less risk.   This is related to what Jim Collins called the hedgehog concept and the flywheel effect in his book, Good to Great.

Ask Better Questions

Sure building momentum is a powerful competitive approach to consider, but does it lead to a revolutionary idea?  Perhaps not. That requires a change in perspective lead from asking better questions.

Most of us own a DVR at home, right?  So why is it we have one?  Is it because we have a burning desire to record programs?  Or, does this product meet a much deeper need, like helping us gain greater control over our already too hectic lives?

If you are the engineering team at the DVR manufacturing company, your product planning probably focuses on what it takes to make a better DVR.   How much memory should it have?   How many buttons should there be?  What color should the display panel be? And so forth. However, when your focus is too narrow, what you are likely to end up with – at best – is a marginally better DVR.

Alternatively, if you asked the deeper question “what other things would people like to have more control over in their lives – that we might be able to provide?” you open the door to many other possibilities.   You might develop a computer device that didn’t store anything, but controlled other aspects of a consumer’s life. You might even consider a service rather than a product.  Choosing which problem you are trying to solve is HUGE.

The Creative Problem Solving process guided participants to ask many more questions than they might n normally (typically 200-300 or more in a session) in search of new problems to solve.   The game changer problems are probably not the obvious ones you normally talk about.

Gluing Car Doors Together?

My company was in the welding business serving the auto industry.   Welding was and is a challenging process. You press two pieces of steel between a pair of electrodes, apply pressure and pass a controlled current through them to melt and forge the steel together.  The process variables are many (steel dimensional variations, the electrodes wear and get thicker with each weld, power line voltages change, die oils sometimes coat the steel, and so forth).   Maintaining quality as all these things change is sometimes a nightmare.   Everyone in the industry focused their engineers and scientists into understanding and controlling the physics of a 5-7 mm in diameter weld spot.  The question they asked was “How do we make a better welding system?”

Our solution ultimately was to replace the welds completely, using instead, pumped structural ADHESIVES which were cured using an electromagnetic field.  What we developed was stronger, provided less car body panel vibration, resisted corrosion better, required less maintenance, and was cheaper.  This innovation for us was responsible for a 10X growth in sales revenues over about 5-6 years.

The point I am trying to make is that as long as we saw the “problem” as designing a better welding system, all we would ever create was better welders.   The capacity to see this as NOT a welding problem was the first step in imagining the idea of gluing car parts together.

If you are looking for breakthrough innovation, ask more and better questions, and then look for new problems to solve.

The group I was working with this week discussed many technical features and benefits of their current product offering.   Many of them seemed to define the theme “How might we simplify the lives of our customers with the technologies and services we can provide?

That is a pretty good question.

Other resources

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition, by Wayne Fisher, Xavier Leadership Center

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Breakthrough Innovation: No more Mr. Nice Guy?


Xavier Leadership Center is doing a great deal of work these days in the area of guiding innovation. We have reached out to develop a globally experienced network of innovation facilitators, who are skilled at what we believe to be best practice.

In general, the design thinking or creative problem solving processes fit will with the XLC leadership model that flows from the Jesuit traditions upon which Xavier University was founded.   We believe that innovation is an empowering activity that can enrich work life, but inviting people from all parts of an organization to co-create their own future.   The ideas both bubble up (from within the organization) and are focused (sort of top down) from the company strategy.   I would describe a sort of yin-yang relationship.  In essence, the strategy (which is heavily influence from top-level execs) defines what major problems need to solved (to grow our business, change our business model, modify our cost structure or redefine our customer service experience).   However, often it is the people at the mid and lower levels of an organization who have the best insights about how to actually execute.

So the innovation methodologies we teach are collaborative and involve:

  • Creating Eclectic, Diverse Teams (Based on the notion that people from different backgrounds will always see situations differently – providing much richer idea generation.)
  • Launching a Process of Joint Fact Gathering (To inform all participants more deeply about “the problem” being solved.)
  • Immersing Participants in Experiential Learning (To connect our internal teams in emotionally rich ways with the outside world, either by performing customer observations, interviews or field trips.)
  • Structuring Idea Generation (Linus Pauling said when asked “how do you get a good idea?” answered “well . . . you start with a lot!” We strive for lots of divergent thinking and then converge later.)
  • Following the Energy (In sessions where multiple ideas are emerging, usually there are a few of them that seem to heavily capture the imagination and enthusiasm of the participants.   We suggest trusting their instincts and follow the collective group wisdom.)
  • Planning the Execution (Innovation is about implementing something.  Until you do it, all you have is just a bunch of interesting ideas.  So plan the who, what, why, when of the project, considering what new data you might need, and also how to build the right guiding coalition – considering the right stakeholders).

I have seen this process work pretty effectively, and am convinced it is one that can produce some powerful ideas.  We are using this process at Xavier to lead internal transformation efforts on our campus with good results as well.   At the university, we tend to value collaborative and inclusive approaches in much of what we do, and our bottom-up methodology is well appreciated.  It is, for the most part, a polite, friendly, collegial, engaging approach to new solution generating.

This approach is “Nice.”

In a recent article from the HBR Blog Network called Why You Won’t Get Breakthrough Innovation by Being Nice, Simon Rucker argues that the kind of innovation process I am describing above, works well for incremental innovation, but not for ground breaking, paradigm crushing, world-changing innovations that we might ascribe to companies like Google or Apple.

The essence of his argument is to consider people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, these well-regarded innovators brought something else to the process.  They infused an intense determination, drive, and assertiveness needed to press forward with their inspirations to get them to fruition.   Sure, they all relied upon many colleagues and subordinates to work on the ideas, but it was their single-minded focus that was the factor that made the difference.

Interesting point.

He goes on to point out that none of these famous inventors was known for their social skills.  They were harsh, sometimes cruel, demanding, unreasonable, and intolerant of people who stood in the way of their vision.  So perhaps it takes people like that who possess incredible insight and vision, together with the determination not to let anyone stand in their way.  Certainly one can’t dismiss the end results of Microsoft, Apple, Ford or Edison.

But, I’d like to think maniacal determination may not be the only thing that works.   It seems to me that it has a lot to do with the “problem” you set out to solve at the front end, and on the questions you ask that drives idea generation in any particular direction.  If you choose tactical questions and problems on which to focus your innovation agenda, then you may not get the next iPhone-like product at the conclusion.

First, we need to recognize that no organization can only pursue breakthrough innovation ideas.  The risk is just too great.  For most of us, we are aiming at a mix of projects, the majority of which focused on incremental innovations (making better what we already do).  These are tactical, and related to improving quality, the customer experience, reduce cost, etc.    A portion of our innovation effort should be focused on game changing, bold ideas.

One method I like a lot, drives ideation from the asking of what Phil McKinney calls Killer Questions (see reference below).   These are thought-provoking ones that challenge us to think about problems from different vantage points.   I worked this past weekend with a wonderful group of physician leaders from a highly regarded hospital group.  We were discussing these types of “killer” questions:

  • If no hospitals existed at all today, what system might we invent to serve the health care needs of our community (assuming we had a completely blank sheet of paper)?
  • What would we do differently if we were paid for the people who did not ever enter a hospital and penalized for the ones who did?
  • Develop three separate strategies under these assumptions:
    • We were in the business of curing people who arrived at our doorstep
    • We were in the business of managing cost for chronic health problems (which consume about 3/4th of all health care spending in the US)
    • We were in the business of minimizing the lifetime medical costs for a definable population in our region
    • What would it take for us to reduce the number of surgical procedures by 50 percent in five years?

It seems to me that these questions can stimulate ideation in some remarkably bold ways, leading even to breakthrough initiatives.  As David Coursey suggests in his article below,  just because Steve Jobs was a jerk, we don’t need to be.

So while a Jobs/Ford/Gates/Edison style of innovation leadership does work, I am not convinced it is the only way to achieve game changing insights.

Other Resources:

Steve Jobs Was a Jerk, You Shouldn’t Be, from Forbes

Lessons Learned from Thomas Edison’s Life, from School for Champions

Introduction to the Killer Innovation Approach, from Slideshare

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