Innovation is an evocative word. But the image it most frequently conjures--a lone, sleep-deprived genius slaving away in a cluttered garage--is also the most misleading. In reality, says SRI International CEO Curtis Carlson, "you can invent by yourself, but you can't innovate that way." He ought to know. For six decades, SRI, based in Menlo Park, Calif, has endured as a prolific incubator of money-minting ideas, playing a key role in creating everything from the computer mouse to the HDTV standard, which Carlson helped develop. Over the past 20 years, Carlson has searched SRI and countless corporations for the best practices of innovation. Now he has, with William Wilmot, director of the Collaboration Institute, laid all that learning down in a book, Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want.
Rapid, consistent innovation, the authors find, arises only from a highly disciplined process. Most executives, they say, don't get that. So, what are the five disciplines? For starters, pick important, not merely interesting problems. Douglas Engelbart, the SRI engineer who invented the computer mouse and hypertext, had his team aim to "make the world a better place by augmenting and extending human intellect." Such outrageous ambition yielded the foundations of personal computing.
Next, assess each innovation for its value to customers. Obvious? Sure, but most new consumer products fail because nobody wants them. Carlson says the idea of value has moved beyond cost and quality to include such abstractions as convenience and conscience. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, for example, quickly recognized that the iPod would address the crucial consumer needs of simplicity and portability.
Thus innovators must master a value proposition: a crisp description of the problem their concept addresses, the distinguishing features of their approach, that approach's cost benefits and the reasons it is better than ones taken by competitors. The proposition doesn't just hone the pitch; it also aligns product development. Yet no matter how compelling that proposition is, innovation is a frustrating business. Hence the third discipline: the appointment of a champion who is insanely committed to the project. "We have a saying at SRI," says Carlson. "No champion, no project, no exception."
The two final disciplines require building teams and doing so across organizations. Carlson finds that effective teams succeed by continually sharing, implementing and improving ideas. That iterative process, used by Engelbart, is employed on a far larger scale by firms like Google, which publishes beta versions of its new products and feeds consumer responses into development. Building these disciplines into an organization isn't easy, but Carlson notes that the effort would at least be well grounded. "If you're teaching executives creativity and teamwork by having them build paper planes and sending them on rafting trips," he says, "there's something profoundly wrong with your organization."