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Scaling innovation

Successful innovators make mistakes.  Even though they’ve learned and built routines and capabilities they can still get it wrong.  Sometimes spectacularly so.

Take the case of  Toshiba  – certainly not a new kid on the block but a respected innovator over nearly 150 years.  Not just a one hit wonder either – its success pedigree includes lightbulbs, memory chips, video recorders, TV sets and DVD equipment.   They also understand the challenges of bringing innovations to scale – for example, they’re credited with bringing the notebook computer to a mass market with their 1100 series.  Yet they lost out big time with their attempt to put HD DVD into play, losing the standards battle to Sony and its Blu-Ray system (and around $1bn in the process).

Or Clive Sinclair, one of the creators of the personal computer revolution whose ZX family of machines spawned a generation of programmers and helped move the technology to the mainstream.  Despite his success with computers (millions of units sold world-wide) he managed to fail very publicly with his later venture, the  C5 electric vehicle.

They aren’t alone – in fact there’s a wonderful Museum of Failure located in Sweden which showcases failures from some of the biggest business names in the world.  The underlying premise is not to ridicule these companies but rather to show that we can learn from failure.  They remain successful businesses because they absorbed the costly lessons and revise their innovation management models.

The examples of Sinclair and Toshiba highlight one particular challenge in innovation – the journey to scale.  We spend a lot of time worrying about the ‘front end’ of innovation – how to create new business models around products and services.  Powerful new digital tools and reorganization around open innovation principles ensures that there’s no shortage of incoming ideas.  Nor is there a lack of attention to the teams who create the new – entrepreneurs are helped through bootcamps, incubators and accelerators, in house teams have various shades of venturing options inside the walls of their parent organizations.  

But what happens when the project succeeds, and the new product or service is launched?  If a new idea is to have impact (commercially or socially) then it needs to move to scale.  People have to adopt it in large numbers,  the ideas need to spread, the concepts diffuse.  And it’s here, on the journey to scale, that we find a number of roadblocks, potholes and other obstacles to long-term innovation success.  

It’s not easy.  The Museum of Failure has over 100 ‘exhibits’ and thousands more haven’t made it through its doors and into the public eye.  This shouldn’t surprise us – after all we’re programmed to cover up failure rather than celebrate it.  But if we understand what goes wrong we might have a better chance the next time we set out on the journey.

Serial innovators know this, they reflect on lessons learned the hard way and apply them in honing their skills at scaling.  A good example is Joy Mangano, sometimes called the Mother of Invention because of her track record in bringing innovation to bear on seemingly ordinary household chores.  The huge success of products like the Miracle Mop aren’t accidents; they rely in her deep and hard-won understanding of how to move things to scale.

So what lessons can we draw to give us some signposts for the journey to scale

It takes time. Once launched new ideas often take a long time to have impact.  Think about the bicycle.  It was invented around 1817 by Baron von Drais who certainly had a clear vision for what he was trying to achieve – affordable personal transportation for everyone.  But it took another sixty years to make that dream a reality.

Or the experience of  Frederic Tudor, the ‘ice king’ of Boston who pioneered the global ice industry in the 19th  His first (unsuccessful) voyage in 1806 took a shipload of ice to Cuba where its frosty reception had nothing to do with the product in his ship’s hold.  It took another 10 years, all his family’s money and a spell in debtor’s prison before he finally succeeded in creating an industry which in its heyday was cutting and shipping close to a million tonnes of ice every year. 

Timescales remain stubbornly long, even as technology life cycles shorten.  For example in the field of humanitarian aid the idea of giving people money instead of food can be traced back to experiments in the early 1980s.  But it took another twenty years before this moved to the mainstream – and even then it took impact of the dreadful 2004 Tsunami to kick start the diffusion to scale.

So if it’s going to take a while to move to scale then you’ll need to do more than just pat your innovation on the head and send it on its way.  You need a strategy, a long-term plan for how it will happen.

Dominant designs matter.  Innovation is all about possibilities and problems.  It involves finding ways to match needs with available means in novel fashion – and they don’t always come together at the same moment.  Back to bikes; the need for personal transportation was there for Drais, not least because of two bleak years of bad harvests and the ravages of the Napoleonic wars reducing the availability of horses.  But the technology to create a working bicycle wasn’t around.  

The next sixty years were a classic illustration of the ‘fluid phase’ in innovation where many entrepreneurs chase after the same thing, each experimenting with their solution to the problem, each adding ingredients to the soup.  Eventually it come to the boil and a ‘dominant design’ emerges – the configuration which best fits the needs/means  challenge for the most people.  

Importantly it’s not necessarily the best; history is full of innovations which were technically superior or delivered more elegant solutions but were elbowed aside by the emerging dominant design.  In the case of the bicycle Pierre Lallement may have the distinction of his name on the patent for a pedal powered machine but it was William Starley who put the dominant design together – the  diamond frame, pedal driven, chain transmission vehicle which we still use today

Henry Ford wasn’t the first car maker, his business arrived nearly twenty years after Daimler and Benz had started selling horseless carriages.  And the i-Pod was number 51 in the race, arriving three years after Sachan Information Systems of Korea had launched their MpMan.  Yet it was the Model T and the i-Pod which became the dominant design and shaped their respective industries. 

The lesson here is one of watching, adopting and adapting, learning with the market as it evolves and amplifying the key features which it values – not necessarily the ones you think are the best.