Innovation as a process

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Aravind Sitaraman, VP & Managing Director, Cisco Development Organization, India

Aspiring innovators frequently confuse invention from innovation. While both involve creativity to create a new product, process, idea, or thinking, innovation is more than that. After creating something new, innovation would make it a reality through action and implementation. In many ways, one can say that innovation is organized invention.

However, a better form of innovation is when the creator makes improvements, upgrades, and newer versions part of a disciplined development process. In other words, the best innovators are those who constantly seek to make components and modules better, faster, cheaper, and more efficient and thereby increasing the value of what they make and sell. After they have implemented this upgrade, the innovator will then file a patent or copyright to protect his or her interests.

Many aspirants often think that the process is other way around. They think that they have to invent something, file a patent, and then seek a market for their invention. While some may actually succeed using this methodology, an overwhelming number of such creations fail because they are often theoretical without a basis for marketability. Therefore, a more robust approach is to look at market data, talk to potential customers, understand their requirements, study available solutions including products and standards, and then devise a solution to address a particular problem. This wholesome approach may not guarantee success of the idea but at least reduce the chance of failure.

Innovations can also be broadly classified into two categories. One is organic (such as described above) and the other is disruptive. The second form is harder to conceive or achieve but when successful, it usually catapults the innovation into heights often at the cost of the incumbent solutions or products. The Voice on IP (VoIP) is an example of how a new way of transporting data can seriously disrupt traditional methods of handling voice traffic that existed for several decades. The emergence of the mobile phone is another example of how traditional fixed lines may become irrelevant in our lifetime.

If we accept the aforementioned, then innovators need to focus on three principles to be successful. Firstly, they need to look for a differentiation in their solution and this can come only if there is a committed focus on innovation, a culture of focusing on customer success, and a firm execution model. Successful organizations often make these a core discipline. Secondly, the innovators need to understand the value that the innovation will bring in to the eco-system through opportunities and motivate others to adopt or develop on this new idea. Thirdly, there must a firm business plan that demonstrates how the customers will be successful with this new idea, the markets where this innovation can be sold, and the profits that can be generated.

Organizations successful in innovation adopt a methodology to develop its products and solutions. For example, Cisco uses The Great Engineering Methodology (GEM) as the tool to funnel ideas to fit an overall strategy that can translate into execution and ultimately result in deployment. As part of this process, companies have to go through a series of steps before successfully deploying the project. Idea generators have to work with Product Management to get the concept accepted by key decision makers, scope out the resources needed, and get a buy-in for execution. Once these two key steps are accepted, the product is developed, sent to key beta or field test sites, and finally released for broad markets.

Several organic or incremental innovations happen as part of the development effort and not a separate process. Typically, it takes 12-18 months for a generated idea to be incubated, developed, and deployed and usually the idea owner typically ends up carrying the product from start to finish and even ends up running the business.

Therefore, it is important for idea generators, especially disruptive ideas, to consider the business elements of the idea before embarking on innovation. In some cases, such as the iPod, there may be no business case or apparent market but the innovation will make new markets by disrupting incumbents and the payoff from such disruptions will usually be huge. However, the success rates for disruptive innovations are also small. By making innovation a process and not consider them a standalone achievement of a select few, companies and individual idea generators can greatly reduce the risks of failures.

Aravind Sitaraman

Aravind Sitaraman
VP & Managing Director
Cisco Development Organization, India


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