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Innovation: Learning the Lessons

April 16, 2012

If you look up Innovation in Wikipedia, it is clear that is very widely used for a whole set of different issues in the business world. Much like quality in the 1980s, everybody is in favour of it and it’s very difficult to argue against it. However, that does not mean that it is either easy or inevitable.

A case study of innovation in one context can be hard to learn from and adapt to your specific situation. How can a small design engineering company learn from Apple’s stream of innovations?

How can an aircraft manufacturer learn from say Toyota?

In Here be Dragons, [1] Chapter 6, “What are the Innovation Options?” illustrates many of the typical challenges that companies  face when wishing to, or needing to, innovate.

The Innovation workshop creates many ideas. That is typical of such workshops. The challenge lies not in generating the ideas, but in selecting from them and getting agreement about the direction the company wishes to go in and commitment to the consequences of that choice.

Innovation is often used in science and engineering businesses as a synonym for technology. Technology developments will indeed often be a source of and a driver for innovation, as they are here.

However, it is the cultural and leadership of change issues that provide the opportunity to learn and to borrow and adapt from an innovation case study.

Futureparts finds itself in a changing marketplace. The customers and technologies it knows well are not enough to keep the business in good health. The company is coming up against much bigger competitors, with deeper pockets.

At its heart the ability to innovate is determined by a company’s attitude to uncertainty and the appetite for risk.

During the innovation phase it will often feel messy and unclear. It can often feel as if no progress is happening. At the end of the chapter that moment of resolution occurs. Keeping going and staying optimistic is central to success in any Project Office, faced with the fundamental challenges Futureparts is dealing with.

Business Model Innovation is a very common theme in high technology industries. With globalisation, many organisations that once could do “everything” within their own business find themselves making choices about outsourcing or partnering. This often causes conflict inside organisations because a powerful Director of what is todays core competence of the business will lose-out in the process. The ability to give up what you are good at today and move your energy to a new field is never easy.

Similarly, a Sales and Marketing Director who knows his customers and markets well may feel at risk selling new products to new customers in a new market.

What the chapter also illustrates is one of the hardest aspects of innovation, which is addressing the skills gap between the old business and the new business. These skill gaps may be anywhere in the business, not just in the technology fields.

Indeed the critical path for renewing an organisation through innovation is managing the long-lead time developments, including skills, which are the consequence of the new direction.

The final lesson is the move from innovation to operations. Many organisations set up project Offices/Skunk Works/innovation Hubs inside the business which deliver some new possibilities. A source of failure to innovate is the inability to integrate these back into a company’s strategic plan and operations.

So, while the innovation options can be read as a story of technology selection that is to miss the important elements of the story.

The innovation process and change management are as important, if not more so in most “technology innovations” as the chosen technology, in our case Smart electronics.

Chapter 6 of Here be Dragons was written by Chris Yapp who can be contacted at

[1] Here be Dragons, Gill Ringland, Patricia Lustig, Rob Phaal with Martin Duckworth and Chris Yapp, Choir Press, orderable through amazon at

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