Reducing the risk of Innovation

Though we can’t describe it in words, or tell someone how to do it, we all know innovation is good. Why is it good? Look at the causal chain of actions that create a good economy, and you’ll find innovation is the first link.

When innovation happens, a new product is created that does something that no other product has done before. It provides a new function, it has a new attribute that is pleasing to the eye, it makes a customer more money, or it simply makes a customer happy. It does not matter which itch it scratches, the important part is the customer finds it valuable, and is willing to pay hard currency for it. Innovation does something amazing, it results in a product that creates value; it creates something that’s worth more than the sum of its parts. Starting with things dug from the ground or picked from it – dirt (steel, aluminum, titanium), rocks (minerals/cement/ceramics), and sticks (wood, cotton, wool), and adding new thinking, a product is created, a product that customers pay money for, money that is greater than the cost of the dirt, rocks, sticks, and new thinking. This, my friends, is value creation, and this is what makes national economies grow sustainably. Here’s how it goes.

Customers value the new product highly, so much so that they buy boatloads of them. The company makes money, so much so stock price quadruples. With its newly-stuffed war chest, the company invests with confidence, doing more innovation, selling more products, and making more money. An important magazine writes about the company’s success, which causes more companies to innovate, sell, and invest. Before you know it, the economy is flooded with money, and we’re off to the races in a sustainable way – a way based on creating value. I know this sounds too simplistic.  We’ve listened too long to the economists and their theories – spur demand, markets are efficient, and the world economy thing. This crap is worse than it sounds. Things don’t have to be so complicated. I wish economists weren’t so able to confuse themselves. Innovate, sell, and invest, that’s the ticket for me.

Innovation – straightforward, no, easy, no. Innovation is scary as hell because it’s risky as hell. The risk? A company tries to develop a highly innovative product, nothing comes out the innovation tailpipe, and the company has nothing for its investment. (I can never keep the finance stuff straight. Does zero return on a huge investment increase or decrease stock price?) It’s the tricky risk thing that gets in the way of innovation. If innovation was risk free, we’d all be doing it like voting in Chicago – early and often. But it’s not. Although there is a way to shift the risk/reward ratio in our favor.

After doing innovation wrong, learning, and doing it less wrong, I have found one thing that significantly and universally reduces the risk/reward ratio. What is it?

Know you’re working on the right problem.

Work on the right problem? Are you kidding? This is the magic advice? This is the best you’ve got? Yes.

If you think it’s easy to know you’re working on the right problem, you’ve never truly known you were working on the right problem, because this type of knowing is big medicine. Innovation is all about solving a special type of problem, problems caused by fundamental conflicts and contradictions, things that others don’t know exist, don’t know how to describe, or define, let alone know how to eliminate. I’m talking about conflicts and contradictions in the physics sense – where something must be hot and cold at the same time, something must be big while being small, black while white, hard one instant, and soft the next. Solve one of those babies, and you’ve innovated yourself a blockbuster product.

In order to know you’re working on the right problem (conflict or contradiction), the product is analyzed in the physics sense. What’s happening, why, where, when, how? It’s the rule (not the exception) that no one knows what’s really going on, they only think they do. Since the physics are unknown, a hypothesis of the physics behind the conflict/contradiction must be conjured and tested. The hypothesis must be tests analytically or in the lab. All this is done to define the problem, not solve it. To conjure correctly, a radical and seemingly inefficient activity must be undertaken. Engineers must sit at their desk and think about physics. This type of thinking is difficult enough on its own and almost impossible when project managers are screaming at them to get off their butts and fix the problem. As we know, thinking is not considered progress, only activity is.

After conjuring the hypothesis, it’s tested to prove or disprove. If dis-proven, back to the desk for more thinking. If proven, the conflict/contradiction behind the problem is defined, and you know you’re working on the right problem. You have not solved it, you’ve only convinced yourself you’re working on the right one. Now the problem can be solved.

Believe it or not, solving is the easy part. It’s easy because the physics of the problem are now known and have been verified in the lab. We engineers can solve physics problems once they’re defined because we know the rules. If we don’t know the physics rules off the top of our heads, our friends do. And for those tricky times, we can go to the internet and ask Google.

I know all this sounds strange. That’s okay, it is. But it’s also true. Give your engineers the tools, time and training to identify the problems, conflicts, and contradictions and innovation will follow. Remember the engineering paradox, sometimes slower is faster. And what about those tools for innovation? I’ll save them for another time.

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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