Innovate July 2015

Radical Innovation: Disrupt or Die


Written By: David Whitney

“I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” — Elon Musk

Innovation is the transformative process in which a unique idea, concept or invention solves a problem. The execution plan for implementing such problem-solving solutions takes many forms, with expected outcomes ranging from creating new products to bringing unique services to market.

To achieve those outcomes, innovations need actions plans, which are usually as unique and different as are the innovations themselves; for example: 3-D printing a 1.0 prototype, a proof of concept born in a university laboratory or a patent filing’s sketch diagram. The key is to apply focus and a high degree of detail for achieving innovation success.

Given that all types, shapes and sizes of innovation emerge daily, most innovative advances are incremental in nature. Those small but steady advances don’t usually garner much attention or produce eye-catching headlines. Instead, they go unnoticed and are not found on most people’s radar. The incremental value that incremental innovations create is often overlooked, yet companies rely deeply on them to keep product pipelines lines fresh and/or service offerings relevant.

Conversely, radical innovation attracts widespread attention and produces dramatic headlines. Radical innovation screams “Look at me!”and usually involves an emerging technology that improves on what’s available today. Radical innovations enable new applications, changes in consumer behaviors, and disruptions to the predictable patterns of consumption and usage. They are born anywhere innovation is at work: entrepreneurial startups, university laboratories, government organizations, military projects and corporate R&D projects.

Radical innovations are riskier, more expensive and take longer — to ideate, design, test, improve and commercialize — than incremental innovations. However, when they succeed, radical innovations generate a stream of long-term marketplace opportunities. Creating and monetizing these opportunities are essential for larger companies — as well as for entrepreneurs possessing the passion and discipline to stay the course — to generate cash flow and produce profits.

The book “Radical Innovation: How Mature Firms Can Outsmart Upstarts,” reveals the patterns through which gamechanging innovation occurs in larger, more established companies. The book’s author, Dr. Gina O’Connor, identifies the competencies companies must possess — and apply — to make radical innovation successful. Professor O’Connor is the associate dean of the Lally School of Management and Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York and is a recognized thought leader in the field of innovation, with a specialty in radical innovation.

Dr. O’Connor has her finger on the pulse of radical innovation. Her book identifies seven management challenges companies must overcome to be successful at disruptive innovation. The challenges reflect a transformative approach for pursuing opportunities; the outcomes are products of operational discipline and established management structures. By adhering to discipline and structure, companies reduce risk and improve innovation’s return of investment. The seven management challenges described in O’Connor’s book are:

  1. Identify promising, problemsolving ideas and convert them into profitable business opportunities.
  2. Conduct innovation projects in a fluid environment with no predetermined end points; however, it is important to measure actual outcomes versus projected ones.
  3. Use quick, inexpensive steps (e.g., minimum viable product) to learn about market opportunities; take incremental steps — and condone failure — to prove a concept, make slight adjustments or pivot in a different direction.
  4. Unleash experiments to uncover appropriate strategies and effective tactics for entering markets.
  5. Create and operate a culture that stresses “ownership mentalities” and “entrepreneurial mindsets.”
  6. Increase successful innovation outcomes by swiftly ending projects when necessary or quickly adding resources to projects that show promising outcomes.
  7. Recognize and reward individuals advancing innovations, whichever the type of innovation pursued.

Combining disparate ideas is an effective approach for producing successful innovation outcomes. What produces potentially even bigger outcomes is a concept from another book, this one with a title associated with the Renaissance: “The Medici Effect.”

Author Frans Johansson advances the notion that successful, radical innovations are produced when diverse disciplines, cultures, problemsolving ideas and people collide. These collisions often produce radical outcomes and create environments where the status quo is frequently questioned and usually dismantled.

When that occurs, the seeds of radical innovation are planted. Doing so forms the very roots of radical innovation, which debunks existing interests, established norms, conventional values, accepted social practices and pre-existing relationships. As a result, the collaborative efforts of marketplace radicals — innovation activists and their acolytes — gain momentum by exerting significant influence on the market’s acceptance of the products and services produced by radical innovation.

Yet, not all radical innovations succeed. That’s because their creators overlooked the social and cultural adoption necessary to excite and capture the attention and dollars of targeted consumers.

Segway offers a valuable lesson in radical innovation. Among other factors, Segway flopped because consumers were not willing to pay the device’s high cost; the radical innovation’s cost was too expensive for consumers to readily adopt the technology. Costs stayed high because the Segway design and manufacturing team (Dean Kamen and colleagues) were faced with toppling the status quo. If Segway could have simulated consumer interest even in spite of the high cost of adoption, doing so would have represented a critical step in reshaping markets with the company’s radical innovation.

Companies must understand how radical innovation forges a collective identity. Radical innovators able to articulate a “cause” — and by doing so, arouse emotion and create a community of members — connect with their target audiences. The innovation and its message should also be “cool”— enough so that people identify with the cause, promote it widely (i.e., via social media) and signal a deep personal commitment. And yet, in this era of ubiquitous, never-ending information, the definition of “deep commitment” is most likely described in terms of hours, days and weeks and not in years, decades or lifetimes.

The companies that are succeeding build connected, consumer-centric communities. They do so by improving their odds of innovation success by harnessing the power of collective action; this is done by emphasizing two-way communication with consumers, again, via social media. Think about the ways social media campaigns connect with consumers (Apple Watch comes to mind); to solidify the connection, radical innovators think and act like insurgents — determined to influence the marketplace and, often, their own organizations — in waging battle on the status quo.

The point of all of this is simple. Radical innovation will remain with us given the nature of technology’s gazelle-like advances. It takes the form of studentled projects or initiatives undertaken by multi-billion dollar global companies; if properly executed, radical innovations disrupt the status quo and change the world forever. Whether that disruption occurs on Earth or on Mars might depend on the success Elon Musk has in getting us to the Red Planet. When that happens, not if, let’s hope Mr. Musk figured out a way to get us back to Earth alive.

David Whitney serves as the assistant director in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University’s College of Engineering and continues to teach a course, Engineering Innovation, to both undergraduate and graduate students in the College. Engineering Innovation features the Spotlight on Innovation series, which Whitney created; Spotlight brings the real-world stories and experiences of innovators and entrepreneurs into the classroom for insightful conversations. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding Managing Director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies.

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