Greg Satell
September 5, 2017

No Innovation Strategy Fits Every Problem. So Get Creative!

Innovation Strategy

Trust Greg Satell (aka Digital Tonto) to once again get the mental juices flowing. Here, he discusses innovation strategy, using some great examples to prove that what works in one instance, will surely not work in another. It is another in our “Great Articles You may have missed” series.

No Innovation Strategy Fits Every Problem

One of the best innovation stories I’ve ever heard came to me from a senior executive at a leading tech firm. Apparently, his company won a million dollar contract to design a sensor that could detect pollutants at very small concentrations underwater. It was an unusually complex problem. So the firm set up a team of crack chip designers and they started putting their heads together.

About 45 minutes into their first working session, the marine biologist assigned to their team walked in with a bag of clams and set them on the table. Seeing the confused looks of the chip designers, he explained that clams can detect pollutants at just a few parts-per-million. And when that happens, they open their shells.

As it turned out, they didn’t need a fancy chip to detect pollutants. They just needed a simple one to alert the system to clams opening their shells. “They saved $999,000 and ate the clams for dinner,” the executive told me. That, in essence, is the value of open innovation and it can be very helpful. But it is only one tool among many. We need to learn to use the entire toolbox.

Expand Skill Domains

When you have a really tough problem, it often helps to expand skill domains beyond specialists in a single field. These kinds of unlikely combinations that are key to coming up with elusive breakthroughs. In fact, in a study analyzing 17.9 million scientific papers, researchers found that the most highly cited work tended to be mostly rooted within a traditional field. With each, there was just a smidgen of insight taken from some unconventional place.

But imagine if the task was simply to make a chip that was 30% more efficient? In that case, a marine biologist dropping clams on the table would be nothing more than a distraction. Or, say, the company needed to identify a new business model? Or what if, as is the case today, current chip technology is nearing its theoretical limits and a completely new architecture needs to be dreamed up?

Mapping Innovation

In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I found that every innovation strategy fails eventually. This is because innovation is, at its core, about solving problems. Ultimately, there are as many ways to innovate as there are different types of problems to solve.

There is no one “true” path to innovation

Yet all too often, organizations act as if there is. They lock themselves into one type of strategy and say, “this is how we innovate.” And it works for a while! But eventually, they find themselves locked into a set of solutions that don’t fit the problems they need to solve. Essentially, become square-peg companies in a round-hole world and lose relevance.

We need to start treating innovation like other business disciplines — as a set of tools that are designed to accomplish specific objectives. Just like we wouldn’t rely on a single marketing tactic for the life of an organization, or a single source of financing, we need to build up a portfolio of innovation strategies designed for specific tasks.

The Innovation Matrix

It was with this in mind that I created the Innovation Matrix, the central framework featured in my book, to help leaders identify the right type strategy to solve the right type of problem.

Innovation Matrix

Sustaining Innovation:

Most of the time, we’re trying to get better at what we’re already doing. We want to improve existing capabilities in existing markets. And we have a pretty clear idea of what problems need to be solved and what skill domains are required to solve them.

For these types of problems, conventional strategies are usually effective. These could include:

  • Strategic roadmapping
  • Traditional R&D labs  and
  • Using acquisitions to bring new resources and skill sets into the organization.

Design thinking methods, such as those championed by David Kelley, founder of the design firm IDEO and Stanford’s, can also be enormously helpful.

Breakthrough Innovation

Sometimes, as was the case with the example of designing a chip that could detect pollutants underwater described above, we run into a well-defined problem that’s just devilishly hard to solve. In cases like these, we need to explore unconventional skill domains – such as adding a marine biologist to a team of chip designers. Open innovation strategies can be highly effective in this regard.

As Thomas Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, we advance in specific fields by creating paradigms. These can sometimes make it very difficult to solve a problem within the domain in which it arose. But it may be fairly easily resolved within the paradigm of an adjacent domain.

Disruptive Innovation

When Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, it was a revelation. In his study of why good firms fail, he found that what is normally considered best practice — listening to customers, investing in continuous improvement and focusing on the bottom line — can be lethal in some situations.

In a nutshell, what he discovered is that when the basis of competition changes, because of technological shifts or other changes in the marketplace, companies can find themselves getting better and better at things people want less and less. When that happens, innovating your products won’t help. You have to innovate your business model.

More recently, Steve Blank developed lean startup methods and Alex Osterwalder created tools like the business model canvas and value proposition canvas. These are all essential assets for anyone who finds themselves in the situation Christensen described and are proving to effective in a wide variety of contexts.

Basic Research

Path-breaking innovations never arrive fully formed. They always begin with the discovery of some new phenomenon. No one could guess how Einstein’s discoveries would shape the world or that Alan Turing’s universal computer would someday become a real thing. As the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said when asked about the impact of a major discovery, “I don’t know, but we’ll probably tax it.”

Some large enterprises, like IBM and Procter & Gamble, have the resources to invest in labs to pursue basic research. Others, like Experian Data Labs, encourage researchers and engineers to go to conferences and hold internal seminars on what they learn. Google invites about 30 top researchers to spend a sabbatical year at the company and funds 250 academic projects annually.

One of the best kept secrets is how even small and medium sized enterprises can access world class research. The federal government funds a variety of programs, such as the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership – a series of manufacturing hubs to help develop advanced technologies – and the Nano Design Works. Local universities, which have a wealth of scientific talent, can also be a valuable resource.

The truth is that every innovation strategy fails eventually, because there are always new problems to solve. That’s why it’s important not to lock yourself into a single approach, but to apply the solution that best fits the problem.

What Do You Think?

This is another piece that your curatti editor resonates strongly to. Almost 3 1/2 ago, I wrote about a concept that I still firmly believe in – Question Circles.

“Question Circles will help break an idea free from the invisible shackles that each of us, and therefore each of our ideas, is unwittingly bound by.”

One of the six roles I proposed was External Expertise. “This person (or these people), coming from an entirely different field, will not be bound by the prevailing wisdom in your field.

So your author and editor are of like minds. What about you? Does this article resonate with you? Does it inspire you to add your own slant to innovation? Please share your thoughts.


Originally published as “No Innovation Strategy Fits Every Problem, So You Need To Work With Full Toolbox” on and republished here with permission.

Greg Satell is a popular writer, speaker and innovation advisor, whose work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc. and other A-list publications. You can find Greg’s blog at and on Twitter @Digitaltonto. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook For Navigating A Disruptive Age, was published by McGraw-Hill in May 2017.

Image attribution: Copyright: ‘‘ / 123RF Stock Photo

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