Serial Innovation: A Simple Truth


Product and service innovation is the servant of a clearly communicated strategy for growth. A clean, crisp articulation of this strategy in the form of a product or service concept is a thing of rare beauty. A concept description promises meaningful differentiation, embodies the brand and is proof of a company’s willingness to invest in its strategy. Failure to build conceptual clarity leads to customer and development team confusion and eventually stockholder dissatisfaction. Raw concepts may emerge from the noisy collaborative environment of brainstorming but most often clarity will emerge from a single talented person working alone to create order out of chaos.

Some fundamental questions about innovation…

Q: What’s really at the core of innovation that leads to new product success? Is it a Discovery Process or a rigorous New Product Development Process or the Voice of the Customer? Maybe it’s a great distribution channel, or really terrific promotion, or possibly an energized sales force? Could it be patents, patience or plain old perseverance? Perhaps even killer features and functionality? Or, maybe it’s just a lower cost solution? Is strategy or organizational buy-in the differentiator? Or, great leadership? Or, maybe it’s just luck?

A: The simple truth is, each of these things plays a role, but none is the answer.  What is first and foremost at the core of innovation that leads to new product success is the clarity of the discovery or new product concept – and the problem it solves. Next in importance is that the concept doesn’t threaten to make life worse for those charged with making it work.

Successful new products are exceptional solutions to exceptional problems worth solving – including internal problems that could thwart success. They begin with problem definitions that are simple, clear and complete followed by concepts that are logical, and elegant in their simplicity and clarity. The clarity of the problem and solution speak not only to all parties in the organization, but also to prospective customers.  Successful innovators know that no amount of excellent and expensive execution can compensate for an unclear problem or a mediocre concept – and that excellent execution is impossible in an organization in which those charged with implementation are threatened by the end result.

Q: How do you develop well-defined problems and crystal clear discovery and new product concepts?

A: One way is to have the right people (i.e., functional experts, creative thinkers, managers, etc.) and personalities involved early on in the innovation process.

Q: So, how do you know who is Ms. or Mr. Right Personality?

A: There’s no easy way to define personalities or divine the best mix of personality types to involve in innovation, but recently published results of personality testing conducted by Robert Gaarder, Ph.D. among a sample of 100 successful architects1 (i.e., proven serial innovators who are either firm leaders or candidates for firm leadership) may help guide your decision-making about some of the people to involve in your innovation process. Gaarder’s findings could be especially useful if you are involved in the kind of innovation that involves assembling ideas and things that already exist in new, unique and different ways.

1 “A Difficult Character” by Amanda Kolson Hurley, ARCHITECT – January 2011.

Q: Why might outcomes from research among successful architects help guide the assembly of successful innovation teams?

A: First, because like successful product developers in business, successful architects are customer-oriented creatives and accomplished serial innovators. That is, they are good at combining things that generally already exist (i.e., design concepts, building materials, manufacturing processes, trade skills and tools) in new, unique and different ways. In the architect’s world, each new building project is a form of a new product, with a different client, use requirements, site, codes, economic and physical climate. What worked on the last project won’t necessarily work on the current one, so architects have to continually innovate by finding new ways to address new clients’ differing needs. And, second, because some uncommon personality traits were commonly associated with successful architects.  As a result, the outcomes suggest some team member traits that could be important to innovation success.

Some startling facts about serial innovator architects…

Gaarder’s testing shows that nearly three quarters of the successful architects he surveyed exhibit strong tendencies toward intuitive, thinking and judging behaviors. Even though these behaviors are generally associated with a set of personalities defined as “rationals”, these are people, and likely mostly men, who dream, however they also get things done – or they don’t get paid!

What’s also interesting is that other personality traits common among the general population  – sensing, feeling and perceiving – are rare or non-existent among the ranks of the successful architects Gaarder profiled.

A deeper look at what successful serial innovator architects have in common…

What’s clear in looking at the description of dominant personality types profiled by Gaarder is that they are intellectually curious, optimistic, possibilities-oriented, big picture, systems thinkers and thought leaders who are driven to improve the way things are done. They consider the end-to-end implications of an idea, like to create alone in relaxed environments, and strive for clear, efficient and elegant concepts. Said another way, one of the key things architects do to succeed is to intuitively apply Lean and Six Sigma thinking to their thought development processes. These successful creatives are also usually good at communicating their vision and enfranchising others. And, they work really hard.

But, along with the good things these successful architects do, there are some bad, and even ugly things they do too. After all, they’re human, and despite their continuous search for improvement, like everyone else, they’re not perfect. For instance, although they can be witty, they may use humor even when it is inappropriate. They’re also not very good at the softer side of interpersonal relationships, don’t value subjective decision-making inputs highly, are independent and unlikely to care much about what others think, have exceedingly low tolerances for messiness, error and incompetence, and are not good at following. These are difficult characters who can be hard to work with, or for, unless you need them to help you get to a better place.

How can the lessons learned from the study of successful architects be applied to fire-up your innovation teams and processes?

First, find some “successful architect” types in your organization and get them involved in your product development initiatives if they haven’t gravitated there already. If you don’t have any, and it’s possible you won’t because they are fairly rare and tend not to last long in organizations where they are not needed or nurtured, consider renting or hiring some – even if only temporarily – to help crystallize your concepts.

Second, relentlessly seek simplicity, elegance and clarity in everything you do at the beginning of the innovation process – from identifying a problem worth solving, to developing solution concepts. Experienced, “successful architect” personalities can be helpful in bringing order to the chaos of The Fuzzy Front End of innovation because they know that no amount of excellent and expensive execution can compensate for a clumsy concept, and they simply won’t tolerate sloppy thinking. You can count on them to find order in chaos and crystallize it into simple, compelling concepts that can be easily explained and understood by all.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment