Companies & Industries

One Size Does Not Fit All in Innovation


Writer Roberto Verganti worries that beliefs about innovation are turning into "dangerous dogma"

Posted on Harvard Business Review: April 19, 2010 1:37 PM

I'm worried that the discussion about innovation is losing its vitality and that a handful of beliefs are becoming dangerous dogmas. Two that worry me the most are:

Innovation and design should be user-centered—i.e., users are the first and foremost source of insights. Innovation processes should, therefore, start from observation of mainstream or extreme users.

The crowd outperforms the elite—i.e., thanks to the web, firms may now leverage the power of communities of scientists, creatives, and users to develop innovations. Many ideas from large communities are better than a good idea from an outstanding innovation team.

In a recent blog, I questioned the universal effectiveness of user-centered processes. My point was that user-centered innovation is ineffective to deal with environmental sustainability. I was surprised to notice that instead of focusing on the specific subject at hand (sustainability), many of the people who participated in the discussion defended user-centricity as an incontrovertible principle.

I fear the same narrow-mindedness is dominating the debate about the value of crowdsourcing vs. elite thinkers. If you try to argue that in some situations an elite thinker is better than the crowd, you'll be quickly derided.

Is the discussion and the practice of innovation at risk of becoming static and mono-tone? Is the community in search of a Holy Grail of innovation—i.e., the one perfect model that works in any situation and forever? Given that innovation is about differentiation and evolution, this would be dangerous for corporations.

The reality is:

One size does not fit all in innovation. Different innovation problems require different approaches. There is no method that is always good. In a 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review, Design-driven innovation shows that user-centered innovation is very effective for incremental innovation but fails when it comes to breakthroughs.

So beware of those proposing an innovation process that "is always perfect" regardless to the problem at hand!

In order to be effective in the long term, innovation processes must evolve. Gary, a professor at the Harvard Business School, often starts speeches with a slide and a line: "Innovate how you innovate." He then shows a list of companies that used to be very innovative but failed simply because they kept doing innovation in the same way. If all companies converge on the same approach, innovation becomes less of a differentiator. The most innovative companies are those that question the existing innovation paradigms, that explore new avenues.

What's going on now in the field of innovation is not new. Indeed, in a famous study, Thomas Kuhn, an historian of science, found that it was the norm—that all communities of thinkers slowly converge and embrace dogmas until new paradigms emerge.

There are signs that a few thinkers are trying to challenge the current dogmas about innovation. For example, Don Norman, a pioneer in human-centered design, recently raised issues about the limits of user-centered innovation, arguing that it can't create breakthroughs. Similarly, Kevin McCullagh, a British design strategist, founder of the design firm Plan, and former director of Seymourpowell, has questioned some unquestionable dogmas about design. But collectively these attempts appear to be too few and far between.

Is the innovation community in danger of becoming unable to innovate itself? Are the innovation evangelists locked into incremental thinking—just like the corporations they are advising to change? Can you point to radical innovation thinkers who dare to challenge the dogmas and who help keeping the discussion evolving? What do you think?

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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