OPINION24 February 2015

The innovation fallacy


Let’s start with a question: what is innovation? Before you read on, pause for second and think about your answer.

How easy did you find it come up with a definition? And how prominent was new technology and new methodology in your answer?

Our business discourse is dominated by talk of disruption and transformation. So many of us feel we have an intuitive understanding of what innovation is and what it can do. But when we venture beyond the buzzwords we find that a complete definition remains elusive. Even the most casual review of the innovation literature reveals as many models or types of innovation as there are academic experts and consultancies practicing the discipline.

Here is a quick summary of the overlapping typologies I turned up from my bookshelf and a quick Google search:

  • Technology innovation: the adoption of new technology as the ‘push and pull’ of driving change
  • Research and Development innovation: normally narrowly focussed on product innovation and developing intellectual property
  • Operational innovation: focuses on achieving a step change in the speed and efficiency of processes and the way that work is delivered to clients
  • Red Ocean innovation: focuses on incremental changes to compete in crowded existing markets (the ocean is red with blood) see Harvard Business Review
  • Blue Ocean innovation: focusses on the creation of new markets and industries not in existence today — the ocean is blue because new demand is created rather than fighting for diminishing marginal returns in existing markets (see also business model innovation below)
  • Management innovation: challenging hard-wired industry beliefs, culture, conventions and mental models – see Gary Hamel
  • Design Thinking: emphasises human centricity and a culture of learning focussed on questions, not answers. see Idea Couture- Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation
  • Service Design: essentially Design Thinking applied specifically to innovation in services and user experience- see This is Service Design Thinking
  • Business Model innovation: focused on changing the dynamics of the industry- creating new revenue streams and new markets- see business model generation

So, if you struggled with my question at the top of the page, take comfort in the fact that there simply isn’t an easy definition of innovation. In fact, there is so much rich and diverse thought available on innovation that anybody who thinks there is an easy definition probably hasn’t understood the question.

Distilling innovation

The 4Ps framework developed by John Bessant and Joe Tidd reduces the complexity into four broad directions of change: product innovation (changes to the products/ services on offer); process innovation (changes to delivery of offer); position innovation (changes to context in which products/ services are created or delivered); and paradigm innovation (changes to underlying mental models that shape an organisation). Innovations are then further categorised as incremental: doing what we do better, or radical: doing something completely different. Whether you’re an end user, research buyer or research provider, the 4Ps is an accessible and precise framework for interrogating the true nature of innovation and scope of strategic ambition and vision in your business.

So, where would you place your business or the market research industry in general on this map? What is the balance between product, process, positional and paradigm innovation? How much of the innovation you see would you characterise as genuinely radical or merely incremental?

There is definitely a lot of cool stuff going on in market research right now. Everyday digital transformation offers us new data streams and opportunities to improve the research experience for respondents and clients. However, I believe the 4P framework highlights an innovation fallacy in market research. Scratch below the veneer of the technology arms race that is gripping new MR and you find a relatively narrow innovation landscape focused on incremental improvements to products and processes. Our tech obsession primarily addresses clients operational/ functional needs (faster, cheaper, etc.) and there is real strategic risk in this.

We are sleepwalking into further commoditisation of our industry under the guise of innovation. But, more importantly, the arms race distracts us from confronting the deeper ‘paradigm’ questions that clients have around the future purpose and value of market research. If you are not convinced, use the 4P framework to consider whether the current scope of innovation activity in market research is addressing the challenge laid down by Keith Weed of Unilever in October 2014’s Impact magazine:

“It’s moving toward inspiration and provocation. We need more breakthroughs and transformational actions, so market research can’t be passive….Researchers also need to understand people, rather than treating them purely as consumers of products.”

The greatest thing about digital and technology transformation is that it is democratic – anyone can get their hands on the tech. In our rapidly converging marketplace the technology only gives us permission to play. But Keith Weed is asking for a paradigm shift. Genuine competitive advantage comes from having better ideas and greater vision. And it’s people who have the ideas and vision, not the tech.

Unfortunately as David Burkus notes in his Portable Guide to Leading Organisations: “Changing certain parts of an organisation is easy, changing people is hard.” That’s precisely why the tech is so tantalising. But the tech can’t help with the biggest transformational challenges facing market research.

As more clients follow Unilever in repurposing their businesses, demands for a step change in the support they receive from market research will continue to grow. They are demanding genuine creative partnership – the kind they get from other partners that are converging on the research market. So we need to confront the innovation fallacy and get comfortable with paradigm innovation.

Ian Murray is co-founder of research and strategy collective house51.

1 Comment

9 years ago

Here, here Ian. There is so much incremental innovation going on in technology-led platforms, each one with it's own particular strengths and none (as yet) that is delivering the optimum experience. In the end, none of them is able to deliver "new solutions/directions", merely new methods for delivering the same as could be delivered before the technology invasion - seldom faster, seldom cheaper and seldom better! At least when it comes to qualitative - which is all about "understanding people in all their complexities." Am I the only one who thinks this?

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