Moving From Myth to Management

Thirty Years in the Serious Business of Building a Customer Connection and Innovation Management

By: Christopher W. Miller, Ph.D., NPDP

In the 1970’s and 80’s I had the pleasure of serving as an employee in two Fortune 500 firms, Philips Electronics and ATF-Davidson Ditto (White Consolidated Industries), as a product development practitioner. We had luxuriously long development cycles, large teams of experienced people, and limited undocumented processes. We also struggled under the tyranny of the “Good Old Boy” customer (dealer or sales person) who told us that the customer wanted whatever he sold them. Perhaps worse, we had end users with low expectations for both quality and continuous innovation. We used slide-rules, rotary phones, and mail. The intellectual power of women and minorities was marginalized in the work place (Mad Men was alive and well).  3M and HP were the kings of the mythological innovation world. We had theories, stories, and experience, but little in the way of a fact-based process.

Today we know what works, and we fail in our innovation effort when we choose to walk away from fact-based best practices. Using the power of every available human resource and aggressively adopting meaningful technologies/tools as they become available has become table stakes.  We know that we must have a slave-like devotion to the voice of the customer throughout our agreed-to product development process. We know that process must be both participated in and directed by the organizations’ leadership. And for all of the effort of creating these structures, cycle times have dropped dramatically but our success rates for launched products have remained about the same since the 1950’s… 60% for most of us, 80% for the best of us. We know that the best differentiate themselves by doing less – having significantly fewer latter-stage projects. I believe that this is primarily because “the best” have leaders who have grown up in an environment of truly listening to their customer and who focus their strategy on the requirements of their future customer.  This approach avoids the, “Have a good idea? Let’s see if it sticks” portfolio management approach. But this approach also kills many of our more extreme, more radical ideas. There have been other losses too – there are too many companies where process has become the new tyranny, experience is lost in favor of outsourcing key activities. Real improvement to product is sacrificed to artificially shortened development schedules.

The result of our thirty years of innovation stewardship is that we now bring more technology into the service of more customers more quickly. The reality is that the customer is substantially advantaged because of managed innovation and that we employees have a greater ability to positively affect change for our individual company. For that same company, however, innovation has become a zero-sum game that we must all play. There is little provable correlation between R&D investment and corporate success. And no “type” of company is more likely to profit from innovation. Innovation is on the verge of being a management technique that any company can decide to deploy. Innovation is no longer a mysterious advantage, it is a tactic that can be, in many cases must be, thrown into the mix of the modern business mayhem.

Problems worth solving – So why continue to get better? Because the problems that must be solved in the next 50 years will require a massive infusion of innovation management:

  1. We must redesign the food value chain… to feed 12 billion souls in a healthful environmentally friendly manner.
  2. We must discover products that redesign the financial infrastructure to allow for millions of new “Haves”. People with the means to own a home and buy health insurance
  3. We must create services and goods that provide the structure of the global wellness and health care value chain (payors, payees and patients).
  4. We need to redesign the goods infrastructure to deal with an increasingly dynamic climate. This means learning to be extraordinarily flexible in the material we choose to build with, what we plant and how we design… there is always another way…
  5. We must develop ways to convert the extraordinary energy producing capacity of this planet into a usable resource while undoing the harm done by the first 200 years of industrialization.


Companies will be paid well to solve these problems and their many parts in many different ways. There is a lot of work to be done, so:

  • Have an agreed to process
  • Follow a supported strategy
  • Devote yourself to meeting the needs of a changing customer

Let’s get to it!

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