Using rivalry to spur innovation

23 May 2010 Sandeep Mehta

Mckinsey Quarterly has an interesting article on how to spur innovation.  Their suggestion is to use rivalry to drive innovation.  As in the case of GE and reverse innovation in India, the underlying thesis is that innovation does not just happen – R&D managers need to actually provide the circumstances to fuel it.

One such approach is to through rivalry as it happened in Renaissance Italy.  The author proposes three approaches to get the rivalry going in modern R&D organizations:

  • Forming teams. Competing teams could come from different divisions, include a diverse array of experts, and take explicitly different approaches to the same problem. After all, there are often many ways (sometimes coming out of different disciplines) to resolve an R&D challenge, and there is often no way of knowing which one is best without trying them out. Moreover, teams can have biases and narrow specializations, making it all the more important to have an explicit diversity of approaches.  
  • Appreciating differences. During the Renaissance, paintings were placed side by side so that viewers could compare and appreciate them and other artists could borrow from them. In the same way, the various solutions that teams develop can be held up next to one another in order to judge them on their relative merits. On many occasions, ideas from one can be integrated into the other. Or a solution that is ultimately passed over can be sent back to the labs for development in new directions. 
  • Conducting “market tests.” Another way to replicate the practice of paragone is to bring designs to an internal jury or group of customers and let them weigh and contrast the different solutions. In some cases, more than one of the products may find customers who appreciate them, just as Renaissance artists each had their own following.

If you have the luxury of setting up competing teams to do the same development, more power to you.  Clearly, the other two suggestions are valid however you decide to evaluate innovation.  Another interesting approach I remember is through “Theme-Based Innovation”  – something I read in an RTEC case study of Coloplast‘s go-to-market strategy.  They define launch slots for products and have a primary and an alternate candidate.  Whichever makes it goes first.  This way, you are not wasting any development resources.

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