Innovation is tricky, although it has worked its way into the lexicon of virtually all business practices in the last ten years. Being innovative is not as simple as utilizing the latest technologies or adopting new processes and procedures. Creating innovation is a much more intricate process. This process is what has most ideas stuck in limbo, waiting for something to happen, a change in the market or a seismic shift that suddenly facilitates acceptance of the new. Too often, superior products are, for some unknown reason, not achieving the anticipated trajectory. Bringing an invention to widespread acceptance can prove challenging even for the most cutting-edge companies.
Designers are often thought of as only being visually creative; although we are very visual, we are also uninhibited by tradition to solve complex problems. By using nonlinear thinking and visualization methods designers can define patterns, make predictions, and draw conclusions that linear thinking might not conjure. It is these practiced skills, employed every day, that can be applied to virtually any problem to provide insight on a system’s perspective.
Seeing through the Complexity
Three major problems that add to the complexity for solving the diffusion of innovations: multiple lenses of innovation research, multiple definitions of innovation and invention, and the multiple elements of innovation. Addressing these problems does not guarantee successful diffusion of an idea, but it will get you thinking in the right direction.
We all look through multiple lenses on a daily basis. Consumer, activist, parent; each has their own social environment associated with them. These lenses need to be analyzed, to find the proper social channels and markets that can often mean the difference between success and failure of a new product or idea. For each invention appropriate lenses need to be applied, targeted and analyzed. Often it is the end-users who develop new industrial and consumer products, having a firm understanding what new solutions might be needed and why. That understanding can also aid in a product’s acceptance. Therefore it’s a good idea to think as an end user when considering ways to build awareness. Once you have the user’s point of view clear, you can define your target, and avoid the pitfall of trying to be all things to all people. There is beauty in simplicity.
Innovation or invention – similar, but not the same. Drawing a definitive line between the two can be an area of contention. For the purpose of this article I’ll use my own point of view: innovation is the solution of a specific problem through application of a new approach, product or system. It is the application that is paramount to the diffusion of an innovation. The “new idea” is the invention; In the 1983 book New Products Management, Merle Crawford and Anthony di Benedetto write “the act of invention is one where pre-existing knowledge is combined in a new way to yield something that did not exist.” This distinction is vital. Claiming an invention is innovative – or that it’s an innovation at all – can be premature. Converting an invention into an innovation is a long and difficult process. It is the widespread adoption of an invention along a social demographic that necessitates its innovativeness. This diffusion depends on a combination of many factors.
Awareness of an innovation’s elements clarifies the layers of complexity present in every innovation. When talking to technical developers and engineers, it is often evident that their products and techniques are technologically sound and their theories and research are all aligned, but diffusion is still elusive. The truth is that technological aspects of an invention are only a fraction of the factors of innovation. Other major factors related to the diffusion of an innovation are regularly disregarded: social, economic, and political dimensions need to be weighed just as much as the technical. Each comes with their own complications that affect each other. Giving special treatment to one factor over the rest will invalidate the conclusions of the whole. By applying a generalized symmetry over all the dimensions, you can realize a better understanding of your potential diffusion opportunity.
The Process of Innovation
The complexities of dimension are only the first obstacle to the diffusion of the new idea. Innovation is much more than a buzzword that says you’re on the cutting edge. Innovators need to know how to navigate the entire diffusion process, avoid multiple biases that hinder diffusion efforts, apply the attributes of innovation to predict and structure an implementation plan, know the difference between radical and incremental innovations, recognize the traits of a disruptive innovation, and position an artifact for acceptance within a social class. Accomplishing all of that usually leads to successful diffusion. Then when you’re done you need to do it again.
It’s not a simple or fast process, which is why so many large firms have devoted teams and separate divisions devoted to it. Innovation is not about coming up with the next great idea, throwing it into the world, and watching it fly. It’s much more scientific – but a kind of science that requires design thinking rather than empirical thinking.
Design in Innovation
Throughout the whole innovation process, design plays in integral part, whether it’s the visualization of complex ideas or recognizing and anticipating unintended consequences of adoption. Designers help associate an innovation with relevant factors that are often overlooked otherwise: people, skills, artifacts, economics, technical and natural phenomena. Change for change’s sake is not enough to spur innovation. Innovators are system builders. Innovation is both cause and effect of social change. Having a visual understanding of how all things are affected in the system is paramount to the diffusion of any innovation.
Christopher C. Fick is the Art Director at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences; with a background in both manufacturing and visual design he is looking to bridge the gap between the creative and technical fields.
Check out www.ncms.org/CreativeSolutions for more information.