Thursday, February 14, 2013

Outside-in innovation

Recent research from the University of Illinois and NC state seems to confirm what companies intuitively knew. The value of an innovation is driven by the uncertainty in customer acceptance. Running separate processes – one for product innovation and the other for customer evaluation, sub-optimize both. Integrating these disparate processes ran by different departments with differing cultures does make sense.

However, it is not that simple. A process view of product innovation implicitly assumes that the R&D machine is sitting idle to serve up the desires of the “downstream customers.” Equally important is the assumption that the customer expectation is stagnant. Customer expectations of products and new features are dynamic and just as local weather is affected by small and possibly unrelated changes in the complex system, they also change quickly and unpredictably. The researchers seem to take a rigid engineering view of the integration of the product innovation ad customer evaluation processes. History shows that not many companies became great by just satisfying expected and measured desires of downstream customers, who are notoriously fickle.

From a decision perspective, companies in high innovation industries are missing a true portfolio view of their product innovation investments. Granted, it is important to understand the status-quo expectations of the customer – but truly great companies anticipate the future. More importantly, they design products incorporating flexibility with a tacit acceptance that the future is uncertain. They anticipate, not precisely, but on uncertain terms. Those who solve this problem systematically – not by rigid integration – but by taking a holistic portfolio view of investment choices, will win.