Sunday, October 20, 2019

Two Types of Innovation

There are two basic types of innovation. The first, Type I, does happen, but rarely. Type I is something completely new. And new things under the sun do not occur as often as we think they do. The first automobile and internal combustion engine were certainly new innovations, but even they built on the wheel, cart, and other existing technologies.

Things such as nuclear power, radio, phones, electricity in the home, and manned flight are certainly good examples of something that was pretty close to new under the sun. All the great, really new innovations can often be traced back to a genius, a lucky accident, or both.

We know the names of many of the geniuses – Fermi, Wright, Edison, Benz, and Ford. However, this is not an endless list, and while lucky accidents are good, they are too chancy. Type II innovation presents a better way.

Type II innovation is much more common than Type I. This second type can be reduced to three general approaches:

  1. Making something that already exists larger
  2. Marking something that already exists smaller
  3. Combining one thing that exists with something else that exists

The simplicity of Type II is profound. It can create dramatic breakthroughs and change the way we live.  Most of what we see and consider as great innovations were derived from the three methods of Type II innovations listed.

For example, the mobile phone or PDA in your pocket was once a fair-sized wooden box on the wall.  The phone has been made smaller from the original wall model hardwired to the outside world. The phone has also been “combined” with a radio, calculator, computer, TV, and music player. The flat-screen television evolved from a device that was once considered a piece of furniture and that took up more room than an easy chair. Over time, the TV’s depth and height have been “made smaller,” and its width has been “made larger.” Add the appropriate technology, and you have your flat-screen display.

Another example is Web-based learning. Web-based learning came about when transparencies were replaced by electronic slides such as PowerPoint. This led to improved quality of presentation graphics, then added animation, placed on the Internet, with voice-over IP, and video, thus delivering Web-based learning.

The “bigger/smaller/combination” approach sounds simple when you look backward. But the trick is doing it in the present, as an innovation for the future. However, it is still much easier than becoming a genius. The good news is you can get better at Type II innovation. As good as we are today, we can get better with practice.

The next time you are in a serious brainstorming meeting and need an innovation for a new product, service, marketing strategy, or similar task, put up three new header columns, and attack them one at a time. A header is the place where you will hang your ideas. The three headers are, of course, “make it bigger,” “make it smaller,” and “combine it with.” The “it” is whatever good or service or whatever you are working on. Have fun with it. Remember not to critique or scrub the ideas until after the generation of ideas is done. Most people are surprisingly good at Type II innovation. Morph some of the wild ideas into something that is doable. The great innovator Henry Ford said, “If you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”

Source: Juran’s Quality Handbook, the Complete Guide to Performance Excellence, 6th Edition

This article is part of an on-going series on innovation.  For more on quality articles from Baldrige, please read:

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