Saturday, May 14, 2005

My little insider secret about innovation

Innovation is a pretty hot topic. I had to read about how I deal with it in two different newspaper articles... 25 years apart.

We designed a graphics production system 30 some years ago that we could have patented. But the market for selling the machine was untested so there was no way to set a reasonable cash value for the hardware that would have been sustainable for us. We elected to keep the system proprietary and prove out the market ourselves. The market was not only there, but we worked that mine in a nice, sustainable way for 25 years. Is that always right? No.

In my day job, my partner and I designed some cool new tools for fluid recycling. This time the opposite was true. There is no way we could ever satisfy the size of our target market by providing the service on our own. Not as a start up. Not even as a big contracting firm. We needed to move the tools themselves to the market. This meant a lot more exposure, so we developed the intellectual property and have received a number of patents. The tools are working beautifully in the field and this biz has some nice IP assets. Is that always right? No.

The secret to innovation is not the process of executing your ideas, but what preceeds it. The secret to innovation is finding problems and analyzing them correctly.

It seems like it should be complicated, but I don't think it is.

In setting this web site up I came across an old newspaper article about Banner Graphics from sometime in the 1980s. I also posted a good article about my day job. I thought it was interesting. The captions under the pictures were almost identical. 25 years apart. Two completely different enterprises. Two completely different industries.

25 years ago: "We're doing work nobody else wants."

Last year: "Takes on the task almost no one else wants."

It's is a Willie Sutton thing. Robbing banks because that's where the money is. Innovating where the problems are.

Find the problems. Often, they're pretty subtle. Find one you think you can fix. Take your time. Do your homework. Work to understand that problem better than anyone else. If you do that, the solutions will become obvious. Then you execute appropriately. That's my little insider secret to innovation.

Problems are the raw materials of innovation.

If you look around and you don't see enough problems, you need more help than I can offer.

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