Recognizing the capability for Breakthrough Innovation

When we started studying the companies who have a declared strategic intent to build a breakthrough innovation capability, we saw companies who wanted BI but didn’t have enough good ideas. We saw companies with lots of great ideas that couldn’t get them built into businesses. They’d send them over to the business unit once the technology or concept was developed ‘enough,’ and then nothing happened. They just stalled.

We were asking ourselves, “What is a capability for breakthrough innovation, anyway?”As it turns out, there are three separate and distinct capabilities. How do we know? Because some companies had some, and some companies had others, but only 1 had all three of them. AND even that one didn’t have them tied together very well. We saw projects slip off the radar screen.

We believe that breakthrough innovation is about the three following capabilities: Discovery, Incubation and Acceleration.

The discovery capability involves activities that create, recognize, elaborate, and articulate opportunities for radical innovation. The skills needed are exploratory, conceptualization skills, both in terms of technical, scientific discovery and external hunting for opportunities. Discovery activities can include invention, but needn’t always.

While the vast majority of companies in our study invested in internally focused laboratory research , most also hunted inside and outside the company for ideas and opportunities, and licensed technologies or placed equity investments in small firms that hold promise.

We saw ‘alpha teams’ of idea generators…really creative, smart types who just pumped out idea after idea because they understood the wealth of scientific expertise resident in their company. We saw idea hunters who went out into business units and help workshops and idea jams. We saw “exploratory marketing’ teams within R&D groups. These were pairs (a technical person and a business person) who hunted outside the company,…indeed, across the globe, for opportunities.

One of our companies relied upon an informal network of external contractors to generate and develop wild ideas and inventions. This network was maintained and funded by a senior executive who elected not to bring them within the company for fear that their creativity would be stifled.

Discovery if about idea generation, opportunity recognition and opportunity elaboration. All of it. It’s definitely about R&D, but there’s more to it than that.

We’ll share our thoughts on the capabilities of Incubation and Acceleration in future posts.

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