Dr. Joel Orr
VP and Chief Visionary
Cyon Research Corporation


"Despite all the pro-innovation rhetoric that one encounters in annual reports and CEO speeches, most still hold the view that innovation is a rather dangerous diversion from the real work of wringing the last ounce of efficiency out of core business processes. Innovation is fine so long as it does not disrupt a company's finely-honed operating model... As change becomes ever less predictable, companies will pay an ever-escalating price for their lopsided love of incrementalism." - Gary Hamel

Innovation is more than generating novel ideas and products. It is about creating good, profitably producible, highly marketable products, and doing so on a consistent basis. That's the innovation Hamel is referring to in the quote above-not novelty for novelty's sake, but new things that are needed and wanted by the market.

So-assuming Hamel's statement is correct, and I do, because it matches my decades of experience-why do so many companies exhibit a "lopsided love of incrementalism" that keeps them from giving innovation the attention it deserves?

Simple: Fear. Fear of risk; fear of loss; fear of change. I read recently that courage is the most important virtue, for without it, all other virtues are neutralized.

And what is fear? Motivational speakers have been telling us for years; it is an acronym for "false expectations appearing real." Overcoming fear is a simple choice-the choice to exercise courage.

In Robert M. Price's "The Eye for Innovation," he says that innovation is simply problem-solving. I like that equation.

Price goes on to say: "Businesses exist because they meet some economic need of society. To the degree that they meet that need more effectively than any other enterprise, they not only have a right to exist, they will grow and prosper. And the key to doing so in innovation."

Since innovation is crucial to business success, how can we get more of it? There are policies that will encourage innovation rather than squelch it, and many authors explore them; see, for example, Managing Creativity and Innovation (Harvard Business Essentials - July, 2003 - Harvard Business School Press), or The Circle of Innovation: You Can't Shrink Your Way to Greatness, by Tom Peters (25 May, 1999). And such policies must be introduced top-down-they have to emanate from, and be enthusiastically endorsed by, top management, from the CEO on down.

Can it be automated? The jury is still out, as far as an absolute answer is concerned. However, there are software tools that definitely enhance certain aspects of innovation-ideation; the generation and exploration of alternatives; rapid simulation of proposed solutions; and more. Here are four worth examining:

  • MindManager (www.mindjet.com). Mind-mapping is a simple visual tool for exploring the contents of your own mind, or of a group of minds. MindManager is the first software I've encountered that works so smoothly, the computer does not obtrude into the creative process. You can download a free trial version at the site. It's addictive.

  • Ipifini Innovation Engine (www.ipifini.com). This amazing software allows you to take CAD files and process them through a series of "morphs" until you see something you like. It's much more structured than it sounds, and incredibly effective. Visit the site to learn more.

  • Genetic Programming (www.genetic-programming.com). Professor John Koza of Stanford has written four books that document his team's success in producing what he terms "human-competitive results" by means of this methodology. In oversimplified terms, you apply genetic programming to a problem by defining a fitness function - a kind of filter that will help you identify the result you are seeking.

    Then you use software to generate a very large number of arbitrary combinations of elements from the problem domain, applying the fitness function to each, to see when you have a result like what you are seeking.

    Using large computer "farms"-thousands of processors-you can explore an extensive "solution space" quickly.

    This approach has already produced a number of patentable inventions.

  • Goldfire Innovator (www.invention-machine.com). Originally focused on the mining of patent databases to extract principles to apply to inventions, this product has now added multiple tools that allow it to generate solutions; perform research; explore innovation trends; and intelligently examine large knowledge bases.

Hamel's lovers of incrementalism won't be around long. Do what you can to promote a culture of innovation. It will pay off.

Joel Orr has been consulting, writing, and speaking about engineering software for more than three decades. Write Dr. Orr at Joel.orr@gmail.com.
Visit his website at www.joelorr.com.