The Process of Innovation

(C) 2011 Hank Wallace

It’s 2:00pm and the meeting has just convened. Mr. Big begins: “I’ve called this meeting of our top department heads to discuss directions and strategies for new product development. Specifically, what products should we be thinking about making in the near future?”

Silence. Memories of the last innovation meeting begin to surface.

“So… I know that this is a bit short notice, but does anyone have any ideas for our future direction?”

Restless silence. No eye contact.

“I realize that you have all been working hard on our recent projects, but we really need a new angle because the competition is closing in fast. We need new ideas. Anyone?”


People check their phones, think about dinner plans, and wonder if this will be another five hour preface to a bunch of mediocre new products.

How does a company break through this wall and spur innovation? I’ve participated in such meetings, and have seen them succeed and fail. Let me share some of that experience with you.

First Things First

There is a foundation for innovation that some ignore. If you treat your people well, then you have potential for innovation. If you nurture your people in their careers, you have potential for innovation. If you demonstrate caring and compassion for the people in your organization, you have potential for innovation.

Note that a person may be a great innovator individually, but poor at spurring innovation through others. The distrustful, the control freak, managers (as opposed to leaders), the easily angered, the dishonest… these people will have a very difficult time with innovation in a group simply because they are not interested in their people as people.

If you love the people you work with, you have a better chance of successful innovation. Doesn’t this make sense?

Please also recognize that “rewarding innovation” is an ancient corporate cliche’. Giving someone a few hundred bucks is OK, but what people really want is to be a part of a meaningful enterprise. Talking about your innovation reward program while treating your employees like human resources (instead of individuals), well, people see through that like glass.

Innovation requires trust. Get your relationships in order first.

How It’s Been Done

The first thing to do to release the creativity of each person in your organization is break away from the routine, from how innovation has been done in the past. In most companies, innovation is sourced by a very few people, many times just one person. Now those people are generally quite gifted and able to sift through many possibilities with a mere thought, focusing on what works in a few moments or hours. But what if you could have 10 or 20 or 100 people like that brainstorming killer ideas?

Break that lone innovator pattern. This may be difficult, especially if the lead innovator also signs the paychecks. His “no” may kill any spark of innovation. Perhaps the boss should go on a cruise and leave the patients in charge of the asylum for a few days.

Do you have an innovator who is not the Honcho Maximus but still commands much respect and authority? So much that no one would dare disagree with him or her? Is eggshell walking an olympic sport around your office? Is he a screamer? Is he a bombastic jerk? I’ve known several genius level people of that sort. Those people are poison to group innovation. Perhaps it’s time for another cruise ticket, on the company dime.

Do you have an age stratification in your company? Most companies have older managers and younger worker bees. The youth are not likely to take risks, or even suggest such things, for fear of being looked down upon. Fifty pounds of pizza and hot pockets for the youngsters (without the managers) might get the creative juices flowing.

Do you encourage your people to record and share their ideas? Probably not. Sitting in traffic causes the mind to wander, and sometimes to wander to profitable, innovative ideas.

You see, we all fall into habits and ruts. To innovate, you have to move out of those patterns. It’s possibly not important how we move out, as long as we move out. Some people like to journal ideas, some might record them on their MP3 players or voice mail. Some brainstorm over coffee, some over pizza, some over wine. Don’t just indulge in a change of venue, but indulge in a change of activity and thought.

Questioning the Accepted

I innovate and invent for a living for a wide range of clients, and I have several patents. I’ve found the best method to spur innovation is to question every accepted fundamental. For example, questioning the fact that television programs are aired at fixed times (inconvenient for many people) led to the TiVO. Questioning the need for expensive, unreliable hard drives in computers led to cloud computing (or some would say, led back to mainframe computing). Questioning the need to buy expensive software (from Microsoft, for example), spurred open source software.

I questioned the need to wear a time piece on my body. My personal innovation is not wearing a watch because everyone else on the planet wears a watch! The time is as close as the next person.

Think ahead. What’s going to be the innovation when someone with an ounce of spunk decides to question the need for the cell phone, or television, or the personal computer? I rarely carry a cell phone, and my family disconnected from cable and satellite TV in 1995. Those ‘innovations’ (forsaking TV and cell phones) have improved my family’s life dramatically! What’s next, someone questioning the automobile or big government? The possibilities are staggering!

Look at your product line. What assumptions did you make? The customer wants it small. The customer wants it cheap. The customer wants it disposable, durable, serviceable, red and portable? Have you spoken to your customers about what they want, or did you just take the word of the guy down in marketing?

What assumptions are your competitors making?

Create a list of basic assumptions regarding the features and use of your products. Then question every one.

As an example, take Euclid’s geometry. Circa 300BC, Euclid formulated the basis for plane geometry. Remember geometry from high school? All those postulates, axioms and theorems? And proofs! Yikes!

Remember the postulate that parallel lines never meet? Mathematicians questioned this postulate, however, in light of other geometries. For example, lines of longitude on a globe are parallel at the equator, but meet at the poles. This is called spherical geometry. Thus, questioning an accepted aspect of plane geometry led to more possibilities, in fact, infinitely more geometries.

Such innovations in mathematics enabled the Theory of Relativity, ultimately, which requires a non-Euclidean geometry.

But you also need to test your assumptions and deconstructions thereof. For example, some environmentalist questioned the need for a flush toilet to use all the water it does. They invented the low flush toilet. However, the net result is that it conveys the solids only about halfway to the sewer or septic system, ultimately causing clogs and service calls. The low flush toilet has unintended consequences that the environmentalist never considered, and the product has mediocre performance at best.

Would we not be better off teaching people to eat less, and therefore excrete less waste? (Good luck with that.)

The point is that some product features do have a sound foundation. But question them nonetheless.

Accepting the Questionable

Once you identify a feature that can be successfully questioned, you have a daunting task: Getting people to accept the questionable. This is true within and without your organization.

The best examples of accepting the questionable happen when customers and employees alike look at the result, slap their foreheads and say, “I never thought of that!” In many cases, however, the response will be “We’ve never done it this way.”

Take a read through the patent database. There are literally millions of inventions which never sold one unit. There are web sites where inventors are selling their great ideas, having patented them and built prototypes. Yet, we never see them on the shelf at WalMart. Why?

There is an inertia in society, in people. They will only accept so much change. They are only willing to pay for so much innovation. Many low flush toilets are installed these days, millions, and people simply flush them two or three times (using more water than a standard toilet). Even if someone innovated a better toilet, would they be used?

You have to determine whether your customer is willing to go along with your innovation, whether brand new, or a modification of existing ways and means. That’s tough.

Innovation Applies to the Meaningful

We use the word innovation loosely. Anything that has not been thought of is labeled an innovation by someone. But many new ideas are meaningless or useless at the core. Are those innovations?

For example, take the Facebook/Myspace phenomenon. Log onto either service and view 10 pages chosen at random. What’s the chance that you will learn anything useful or interesting? What’s the chance that your life will improve? What’s the chance that you will be inspired? Practically zero.

“But I love Facebooking,” you say. Well, something can be fun without being an innovation. Something can be profitable without being innovative. Just go to the flea market and look at all the vendors with dental issues making a decent living. Profitable, yes. Innovative, no.

I’ve written an article on the issue of oxygen free copper, which is a type of high purity copper used in wire. See What About Gold Connectors and Oxygen Free Copper? Use of such wire in your stereo system supposedly yields a better sound than using ‘plain’ copper wire. Unfortunately, this claim is mostly bunk, and meaningless. Yet, several big name companies engage in shameless oxygen free copper marketing hype to make their products appear innovative, whereas in reality the benefit is nonexistent.

If your company is seeking innovative ideas and products, then it must concentrate on the meaningful. And not just the perception of meaning, but true, actual meaning and benefit. A perceived benefit may sell product for a short time, until your competitor changes their paint to match. A real, meaningful benefit can be a true innovation. Marketing fluff burns away quickly under the heat of the customer’s gaze.

Thinking with Every Part of your Brain

People think differently. I think visually, quantitatively. Other people think in other ways, qualitatively for example. There are artists and engineers, free thinkers and the dogmatic. Why would you have only one type of thinker involved in your innovation?

That’s what happens when one person does all your innovation, or when one person leads all your innovation. I’m not into the group think trip, but we have to branch out. There are many ways to do this.

The most obvious is including various types of people in your innovation team, especially people whose business is not innovation. They sometimes have the best insights. You understand this. Maybe you don’t do it, but you understand it.

You can also assemble a virtual innovation team. Every time you walk down the aisle in the grocery, you are receiving creative input from thousands of people. What does that label say? How is it formatted? What colors are used? What cars do people prefer, and in what shapes? What clothing are they wearing? How do they interact with that gas pump? Are they confused, annoyed, overjoyed?

If you can observe people using a product like yours, you can collect a wealth of innovative information. For example, I wonder if any of the designers of the tiny cell phones we have EVER watched someone using those phones? It is impossible to rest the phone on one’s shoulder to have both hands free, as it was with the old Western Electric phones. To solve this problem, they created Bluetooth headsets, and now half the people in the mall are walking around looking like idiots with that thing hanging off their ear, glowing blue. YOU need to walk through the mall, observe this, and design a cell phone that is ergonomically usable, where the earpiece is at the ear and the mouthpiece is at the mouth, bigger than a quarter.

The people around you are using their brains all the time (well, biologically, anyway), making buying and product use decisions. Your competitors never sleep. Watch them. Have your creative team watch them.

Extending the Work of Others

Perhaps you would not invent the next toaster oven or personal computer, but I know that you can improve on the ones that are here already! That’s an important skill. Most innovation is incremental.

Your company has a whole range of products. You can look at your products, and those of your competitors, and brainstorm improvements without much difficulty. Look at this list of questions:

  • What can be improved about the shape or performance?
  • How can this be manufactured less expensively?
  • How can the market for this product be extended to more people?
  • How can this product be made more efficiently?
  • What features or functions can be added for little or no cost?
  • What nonfunctional improvements can be made?
  • What other markets can be served by this product or something similar?
  • What other technologies can be applied to perform the same function at a cost or performance benefit?
  • What assumptions have been made that can be stomped?

Take a look at patents, yours and related ones. What are you missing? What claims can you generalize to prompt new product ideas? What inventions can you fit in the cracks between lucrative patents, of yours or your competitors?


Innovation is about the new. To get your brain to innovate, you have to push out the old and make room for the new. Your brain wants to grow new stuff. That’s the nature of life. Now clean out that idea garden and plant some seeds!

Author Biography

Hank Wallace is the owner of Atlantic Quality Design, Inc., a consulting firm located in Fincastle, Virginia. He has experience in many areas of embedded software and hardware development, and system design. See for more information.