The Discipline Behind Breakthrough Ideas

Over the past decade, business leaders have become convinced of the need to extend the reach of R&D beyond the corporate center. However, in the chase to find externally sourced solutions, companies have repeatedly failed to realize the promised benefits of going outside. Simply running faster and “throwing more darts” is akin to hoping to win the lottery. Further, thinking of this as someone’s “job” tends to create bureaucracies that add organizational cost, without delivering results.

Even though information is becoming infinite, knowledge and insight often lags behind. Although digital technologies can enable access to resources and information in ways that were previously unheard of, this environment sometimes fuels a corporate optimism that supersedes pragmatism. Too often, searching for a solution boils down to luck and information overload becomes an unproductive drain on resources.

Realistically speaking, it is not possible to boil the ocean before running out of time, money, and patience. The challenge for the corporate R&D center is one of risk management. Delivering against return on investment requirements demands processes that are systematic and repeatable. Yet this demand for discipline must accommodate a world that is more complex, interdisciplinary, and moving at ever increasing speed. As a result, it is not about getting more chances, but rather about having better aim.

A fundamentally different philosophy and a more systematic and scientific approach are needed. Often, it is not about finding a complete plug-and-play solution, but rather identifying the best Lego blocks to fit the target system. Further, the goal is to build skills among all employees, not create jobs for a selected few.

A disciplined approach relies on specific tools for breaking down a system into its underlying root cause problems. These tools help to uncover the “right” problems to be solved and reveal insights on what altitude is most practical for solving them. Importantly, the approach reveals insights not only on where to look, but also what to look for in terms of knowledge, technologies, or solutions. And, because a common functional language is used to link the initial system with the external system, the adaptation requirements become much more visible – a critical element for commercialization.

The goal of a systematic approach is to achieve greater focus at each stage of the innovation process and uncover new opportunities to exploit – but in a deliberate, not random, way. Fundamental tenets:

  • Right Target – Understand the most important sources of customer value and maintain a relentless focus on these value parameters.
  • Right Altitude – Consider the most appropriate level for articulating the problem and applying innovation resources, e.g., at the system, component, or sub-system level.
  • Right Problem – Ensure a precise understanding of the fundamental problem that needs to be solved to improve system performance. Avoid working on surface level problems that may in fact be symptoms of deeper rooted physical problems.
  • Right Solution – Avoid the temptation to always invent. Find and adapt enabling technologies and/or leverage existing solutions that can reduce development cycle time and cost.