Thursday, September 8, 2011

Innovators: A “sometimes legacy” of the “usually misunderstood” [or “Don’t be a Juicy Contradiction.”]

As we approach the finals for the Minnesota Cup, let’s pause briefly to honor those innovators who, while often misunderstood, conquer “blue waters” with new products or breath new life into existing ones that make our lives better. Consider Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, who, during a recent shareholder webcast, made the case for “misunderstood innovator” being an acceptable label. “We start with the customer and work backwards. And, very importantly, we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”

This, from the often-quoted Bezos, would lead a reader to believe that Amazon is continually spinning off remarkable new ideas that are akin to Archimedes’s “Eureka moment.” While Bezos will attribute some of Amazon’s initiatives to luck, for the most part the contrary is true. During the same presentation, Bezos observed, “Ninety-plus percent of the innovation at Amazon is incremental and critical and much less risky. We know how to open new product categories. We know how to open new geographies. That doesn’t mean that these things are guaranteed to work, but we have a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge. We know how to open new fulfillment centers, whether to open one, where to locate it, how big to make it. All of these things based on our operating history are things that we can analyze quantitatively rather than to have to make intuitive judgments.”

Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet and J.-L. Barsoux, in “The 5 Myths of Innovation,” look at this another way: “Most companies are sufficiently good at generating ideas; the ‘bottleneck’ in the innovation process actually occurs a lot further down the pipeline.” In other words, innovation without an adaptable process for development will die.

Case in point—the Minnesota Cup demonstrates how the innovation community has responded by rewarding implementation as well as good ideas. The Minnesota Cup requires all applicants to supplement their description of a product or service with a market assessment, an operating plan and sales and marketing plan. This practice sets the bar higher for applicants to develop strategies that not only test the assumptions of innovation, but will pull the innovation through a process to achieve realization. Without the necessary plan and process to drive the innovation to the market, you may only find that “it’s a juicy contradiction.”

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