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Bring Your Breakthrough Ideas to Life

Nov. 1, 2019 Harvard Business Review

Peesapaty tried to influence agricultural policies by documenting the problem in government reports, to no avail. So he looked instead for ways to boost demand for millet. He hit on the idea of turning it into “edible cutlery”—a solution that could attack not just the groundwater deficit but also the scourge of plastic waste. Peesapaty quit his job to pursue the project. A decade later, after a video he posted about the cutlery went viral, orders began pouring in. Two crowdfunding campaigns exceeded their targets by more than twelvefold, and the first corporate orders shipped in 2016. It’s too soon to know whether groundwater levels have stabilized. But many farmers have already resumed growing the more sustainable crop, and to further boost production, the government declared 2018 the National Year of Millets.

As Peesapaty’s story demonstrates, there are two potential routes to any solution: conformity (in this case, trying to use established channels to affect policy) and originality. The first is adequate for many everyday challenges. But for thornier problems, more-divergent thinking may be required.

As academics with a long-standing interest in attention, sense making, innovation, and digital transformation, we have spent the past decade researching pioneering thinkers and changemakers in a wide range of fields, from entrepreneurs to medics to chefs. Our work with corporate clients has included running top-team innovation workshops, leading full-scale acceleration programs, and orchestrating enormous transformation journeys. We have also interviewed and surveyed hundreds of executives involved in innovation efforts. Through these efforts we have identified recurrent patterns in the evolution of breakthrough ideas and constructed a five-part framework for developing them and ensuring their survival.

Unconventional thinkers focus their attention closely and with fresh eyes, step back to gain perspective, imagine unorthodox combinations, experiment quickly and smartly, and navigate potentially hostile environments outside and within their organizations. The challenge throughout is to overcome biases and mental models that may constrain creativity or doom a great idea.

In this article we’ll describe the five elements of the framework and explore how digital tools can augment them. But first let’s look at why game-changing innovation remains so difficult despite organizational and societal pressure for transformative results.

The Elusiveness of Breakthrough Innovations

The digital advances of the past two decades have enabled a much broader population than ever before to express creative intelligence. Unconventional thinkers the world over have unprecedented access to the distributed knowledge, talents, capital, and consumers they need to create a start-up or a movement around a great idea. Innovation has been thoroughly democratized.

And yet breakthrough offerings remain hard to come by. Apart from the transformation of services powered by mobile apps and the internet, we have not seen spectacular surges of innovation across sectors. The economists Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon have spoken of innovation stagnation. The business thinker Gary Hamel notes that corporations are awash in ideas that fall into one of two buckets: incremental no-brainer or flaky no-hoper. And in our consulting work with innovation teams we see many promising ideas become superficial, narrow, or skewed—or perish altogether.

The lack of progress is surprising given that companies have an improved understanding of the innovation process, driven in large part by design thinking and lean start-up methodologies. Terms such as “user centered,” “ideation,” and “pivot” have become commonplace and have changed the way business leaders think about creating new offerings. Yet for all this guidance, only 43% of corporations have what experts consider a well-defined process for innovation, according to the research firm CB Insights.

When we talk with entrepreneurs and executives about existing innovation frameworks, their criticisms center on three overlapping issues. First, the models are unrealistic: The still-influential waterfall, or stage-gate approach, for example, is overly linear, with little regard for the constant zigzagging between activities that may be called for. Elmar Mock, a serial entrepreneur who co-created the Swatch, put it this way in a 2016 podcast: “The very natural instinct for an innovator is to move in a nonlinear way, to go from concepts to know-how back to concept, to relook for new know-how, to change the concept again.” Second, the models are incomplete: They don’t incorporate the digital aspect of innovation or show how it relates to the “humancentric” principles enshrined in design thinking. They emphasize action and fast iteration (pillars of the lean start-up methodology), but in doing so they tend to downplay what Wharton’s Adam Grant calls strategic procrastination—allowing yourself time for deep reflection. Third, the models are misleading: They gloss over the pitfalls and biases that may constrain creativity. And by focusing so intensely on users, they minimize the roles of other stakeholders and the need for inventiveness in mobilizing support to establish and deploy novel offerings.

Regarding this last point, executives recognize that to devise ingenious innovations, they must break paradigms and shift mindsets—but when it comes to delivery, they often lapse into standard ways of thinking. Consider the failed Sony Reader. All the creativity that went into its development was undone by a lack of originality in execution. Sony neglected to enlist the book publishing industry as an ally—a mistake Amazon did not make when it launched the technically inferior but hugely successful Kindle, 14 months later. To make your stellar innovation thrive, approach unconventional partners, identify underutilized channels, and invent new business models. Put as much creative energy into introducing and delivering offerings as you did into generating them. Sony engineered an elegant device, but Amazon designed an original solution.

Our framework complements design thinking, lean start-up, the business model canvas, and other innovation strategies. It is more accepting of the messiness inherent in developing a truly breakthrough solution, recognizing that the activities involved relate to one another in unpredictable, nonlinear ways. The elements of our framework are not unique, but collectively they capture the full scope and reality of the innovation process, including the critical role of reflection in conceiving opportunities and the level of organizational reinvention needed in the final push to market.

Let’s turn now to those five elements.

Attention: Look Through a Fresh Lens

Attention is the act of focusing closely on a given context to understand its dynamics and latent needs. The trouble is that expertise often interferes, directing people’s attention and unconsciously blinding them to radical insights. The French call this déformation professionnelle: the tendency to observe reality through the distorting lens of one’s job or training. To combat that bias, question what perspective drives your attention and what you may be missing as a result.

Take the case of Billy Fischer, a U.S. infectious disease expert who regularly traveled to rural Guinea to fight the Ebola epidemic. In May 2014 he saw that the recommended approach was not working: The local treatment facility was focused on containing the spread by isolating anyone exposed to the virus, but people were hiding to avoid being quarantined. Talking with patients, Fischer realized that the problem was fear: The mortality rate for patients in quarantine was 90%—so people understandably saw it as a death sentence. He insisted that the clinic prioritize patient recovery instead. Testing new treatment combinations, he and his colleagues slashed mortality rates to 50%, reversing the negative perception of quarantine and thus helping to stem the contagion.

By setting aside your preconceptions, you become a sharper observer of what people say and do. This changes not just how you pay attention but also whom you pay attention to—and previously unconsidered niche populations often reveal unsuspected pain points. The toy group Lego learns a lot from the frustrations of its adult enthusiasts, the cleaning-products giant S.C. Johnson from observing hygiene-obsessed OCD sufferers, and IKEA from trying to understand what “IKEA hackers,”  who customize and repurpose the furniture maker’s goods, are “trying to tell us about our own products.”

Digital technologies allow the tracking of behavior on a much larger scale than was previously possible, offering complementary ways of detecting tacit needs. In health care, for instance, researchers are studying the lived experience of Parkinson’s disease by having volunteers use their smartphones to measure tremors (thanks to the function that captures portrait and landscape views), muscle tone (the microphone indicates the strength of the patient’s voice box), involuntary movements (the touch screen records them), and gait (if the phone is in a pocket, it senses the patient’s unsteadiness). The researchers can thus track the efficacy of medication not just before and after dosing but over time. And they get a rich picture of what participants actually do, as opposed to what they say they do.

Cyberspace can also help companies identify expert users in their practice communities. Medical device companies could glean insights from the online forums of “body hackers”—people who implant microchips, magnets, LED lights, and other technology in themselves with the aim of augmenting human capabilities. Inspired by that ethos, Medtronic is considering how its pill-sized pacemaker could be enhanced and implanted in healthy people to give them biometric feedback and improve their lifelong care.

Companies can use digital technology to engage with trendsetters directly or eavesdrop on user forums and blogs for clues about evolving needs. In 2009 Nivea conducted an online analysis, or “netnography,” of discussions about deodorant use across 200 social media sites. Contrary to expectations, the key preoccupation was not fragrance, effectiveness, or irritation but the staining of clothes. This insight paved the way for a new category of antistain deodorants in 2011, the most successful launch in the company’s 130-year history. In the public sector, online media analysis is being used to explore issues such as exercise, generic drugs, and—in an effort to improve health care social workers’ interventions—resistance to vaccination.

Digital technologies can’t replace direct observation, of course. But they expand the number and type of insights generated, providing access to a wealth of unfiltered and unstructured user-generated content that people can then make sense of.

Perspective: Step Back to Expand Your Understanding

Having zoomed in to gather insights about a situation, a need, or a challenge, you must then pull out to gain perspective, fighting against framing and action biases that might encourage you to accept the issue as presented and rush into problem solving.

To process what you have learned, detach: Change activities, or take a strategic break. During his third attempt to circle the globe by balloon, in 1999, the Swiss psychiatrist and adventurer Bertrand Piccard was obsessed by fuel conservation. After completing the exploit, with barely any liquid gas to spare, he realized that he had spent his 20 days aloft in constant fear of running out. As he waited (for half a day) to be picked up from the Egyptian desert, it dawned on him that the core problem was not how to manage fuel but how to manage without fuel. Redefining the issue in this way set the stage for his next circumnavigation challenge—in a fully solar-powered plane.

Ask “What if we no longer did what we do now?” to help identify opportunities.

His insight occurred only after Piccard stepped back. It’s not easy to prime yourself for inspiration while you’re in the thick of action. Consider the pioneering chef Ferran Adrià, who melded haute cuisine, art, and science; generated more than 1,800 signature dishes over 20 years; and earned his restaurant, El Bulli, the rating of “world’s best” a record five times. The key to his creativity, Adrià once explained to HBR, was closing his restaurant for six months each year. “The pressure to serve every day doesn’t offer the kind of tranquility necessary to create as we would like,” he said. “The most important thing is to leave time for regeneration.” This mindset is reflected in the Japanese concept ma, which stresses that space is necessary for growth and enlightenment.


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