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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