3 Tips for Simple Innovation

by | Jul 3, 2012

You may remember we recently wrote a small piece on the New York Times Magazine article 32 Innovations That will Change Your Tomorrow. The publication’s article (and fascinating behind-the-scenes process revealed) was a brilliant meshing of style and substance, with the ideas accompanied by easily accessible illustrations, all delivered in bright, technicolour pops of colour which gave the project almost a pop art feel.

However, a guest post at Fast Co Design suggests these ideas were over-engineered and scaled back innovations that think small may be the way forward in delivering true value to people’s normal, day-to-day lives.

Image: Maggie Hoffman/Flickr.

Image: Maggie Hoffman/Flickr.

Daniel Sobol, design strategist at Continuum, uses the magazine’s tooth sensor idea as an example. The sensor placed directly on the tooth detects the build-up of bacteria and plaque, and notifies the dentist of any problems.

On paper, the inexpensive innovation may seem like a great idea, but how well would it work in the real world? Does it take people’s normal behaviour into account? Sobol asks. Dentists sometimes feel they are fighting an uphill battle getting patients to floss daily. What are the chances of most of the population replacing a tooth sensor daily?

Sobol gives three suggestions on how to re-think the innovation process and he suggests that bigger is not always better.

1. Ideas can sometimes be a bag of beans

Esther Duflo, from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, found that encouraging Indian families to vaccinate their children by offering a bag of lentils was incredibly effective in getting their offspring immunised.  This idea was important because it took into account what was important to people.  This provided one solution to the issue of global health. This small incentive reaped big rewards in terms of real, measurable impact.

2.  Good innovations meet consumers on their terms

In an effort to win the big war on the nappy market (or diaper, for our American friends), in the late ‘90s Huggies and Pampers developed a very absorbent nappy which they thought equated to better. However, a soiled nappy sometimes went undetected for an extended period of time, meaning this innovation had little real value in households.

Continuum went back to the drawing board with Pampers and they found out what really mattered to parents. As well as increased absorbency, the new fruit of the collaboration included improvements such as a picture of Elmo on the back to help nappy-changers with putting on a nappy the correct way, a wetness indicator as well as tabs on the front that easily aligned with the adhesive tape to assist with changing a soiled nappy, especially at night. Parents embraced these improvements and saw Pampers rocket to the top of the sales charts.

3. Start with your idea, then work backwards

At the beginning of the innovations process, companies may come up with the “lighthouse”: the ambitious idea they eventually want to bring to life. But then it is important to backcast and start in small steps.

“What are the steps that we can take today that will make an impact while moving the needle on the path toward our ideal? By using this backcasting model, we are able to ensure that each stage of innovation--no matter how incremental--can deliver something that makes an impact for people in the near, mid, and future terms. We always strive to arrive at our ideal, but often we’ve just gotta get there one step at a time,” Sobol writes.

Jeffrey Tobias

About Jeffrey Tobias

Dr Tobias is an accomplished innovation consultant and entrepreneurship strategist, drawing expertise from the academic, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds. Jeffrey’s commercial and business experience is particularly focussed on lean startup, design thinking and leadership. Prior to The Strategy Group, Jeffrey was Cisco’s Global Lead for Innovation in the Internet Business Solutions Group helping Fortune Global 500 companies improve customer experience and grow revenue by transforming how they do business.
Jeffrey is a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship teaching MBA students at the Australian Graduate School of Business at the University of New South Wales. An active angel investor, Jeffrey is on the board of various well-known startups.

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Managing Director, The Strategy Group

Dr Tobias is an accomplished innovation consultant and entrepreneurship strategist, drawing expertise from the academic, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds. Jeffrey’s commercial and business experience is particularly focussed on lean startup, design thinking and leadership. Prior to The Strategy Group, Jeffrey was Cisco’s Global Lead for Innovation in the Internet Business Solutions Group helping Fortune Global 500 companies improve customer experience and grow revenue by transforming how they do business.
Jeffrey is a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship teaching MBA students at the Australian Graduate School of Business at the University of New South Wales. An active angel investor, Jeffrey is on the board of various well known startups. Jeffrey’s corporate background includes leading global innovation strategy at Cisco, working with large corporates such as Adobe, Westpac, Telstra, Woolworths, and Perpetual.

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