One of the keys to successful innovation is to find an unsatisfied or poorly satisfied need. Whilst we often think of innovation as being about step change, it can equally, and more often, be a small improvement that has disproportionate impact.
A great example of a company that consistently achieves this is Dyson. Dyson amongst other products started by re-inventing the vacuum cleaner but didn’t stop there. Since their first model, the DC01, they have constantly introduced new innovations. Whether it was improving the cyclone technology which is at the core of the original DC01, introducing a ball instead of wheels, or their latest addition the ‘tangle-free turbine tool’.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I’d be writing an article on vacuum cleaners, but when the pop-up advert appeared on my screen for the new turbine tool showing the underside of the new tool it hooked my engineering inquisitiveness.
At first I challenged the underlying issue that it addresses – how often do you have to untangle a turbine tool? Probably not that often, and if you do then on an existing Dyson it’s pretty easy.
However, as I looked at the new design more it became obvious that whilst the issue of ‘tangle’ is the headline, the new tool addresses more than that. By moving from a revolving cylinder brush to a pair of flat circulating disc brushes this has a benefit to the consumer and also to the producer.
To the user it allows the tool to get much closer into edges and therefore potentially do a much better job. From a producer perspective producing a flat plate with 18 samll short brushes (significantly less that the traditional cylindrical version) and probably less other components reduced the complexity and cost of the production. If it also reduces the weight then it will also benefit in terms of distribution costs.
Whilst the concept is simple, when you see it in a picture, it is a great example of how successful innovators have a deep understanding of the problems, and then use invention, creativity, and engineering skills to truly innovate to a new solution.
When you decompose what Dyson have achieved, in this case it is possible to see that, to solve the consumer issues they have brought together and solved many small challenges, such as the shape of the spinning disc brushes, to create something that is innovative.
Whilst the focus of this post is on a piece of product innovation, the concepts hold true for non-product, commercial innovations. Almost always, to be innovative it is an iterative process where we have to decompose the challenge and then solve many smaller challenges. Only when these sub-innovations come back together as a coherent, value adding system do we create something new, novel, and value adding to the consumer.
Managing such a fluid, yet interlinked, portfolio of activities is a key skill if you want to be innovative. Yet it is, in my experience, a fairly rare skill in business functions (commercial, procurement, supply chain, finance etc..).
Increasingly to be successful, organisations need to be innovative not only in terms of their physical products, but also in terms of their processes, information flows, relationships and commercial strategies – ‘commercial innovation’. But do they have the right blend of skills in their functional teams to achieve this? And if not what how do they get access to them?
As a start we have to help unlock the inner-innovators in functional teams by setting the right environment, encouraging the right mindsets. Only when leaders do this, will we start to nurture commercial innovation to balance and support the more traditional product based innovation.