Why user centric innovation is difficult

by Ivar Slavenburg

In my blog “Technical and Non Technical innovation” I made the remark that not every attempt to innovate is meant to improve the product or service from a customer point of view. Changing your production process will lead to lower production costs and some very innovative concepts could be involved, even new, patented, inventions. When the costs reduction is not transferred to the customer, nor is the quality of the product improved, it has little positive impact to your customer. In other words, there is not necessarily a direct relationship between innovation and improving a product or service from a customer point of view.

Adaption of change procedures

Almost every organization has procedures in place how new initiatives are introduced. Most of the time they consists of appointing a product owner, to determine what the changes will be, who is accompanied by a project team, the people implementing the desired changes. This group of people is governed by a team of senior managers, controlling the progress by looking a deliverables through time and money spent. In the blog mentioned above, I introduced the term “User Centric Innovation”. Key difference is that in this case somewhere in the process there is a mandatory step that involves checking the impact on the customer. A change will not be implemented (in the intended way) if this impact is or could potentially be negative.

Rigid procedures can decrease the capability for innovation

It should be clear this requires high commitment from the organization, particularly those (sr.) managers that are not having direct, specific responsibility for the customer. E.g. IT managers, Finance Managers have no direct link with the customer. They look at the performance of an organization from a completely different angle. E.g. in many technical departments of organizations methods like Six Sigma are implemented. As I’m not an expert on this, I copy this straight from this interesting article, "Six Sigma Is Draining Employees’ Creativity" (Andrew Smart, 2013), that gives the following definition: “Six Sigma is an organized and systematic method for strategic process improvement, plus new product and service development, that relies on statistical methods and the scientific method to make dramatic reductions in customer-defined defect rates.” As the title of the article already suggests, Smart isn’t a fan of the method, describing it as being “analogous to an organizational epileptic seizure”. The big problem he sees is that the human brain actually seeks out and thrives on its own variation. Taking away the opportunity to do things differently is killing for innovation. And to take variation away is primary task of implementing Six Sigma, throughout the whole organization.

When described this way, Six Sigma is reminding me of the books series “The Goal”, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox. In the first book, plant manager Alex Rogo is determined to optimize his factory to make it profitable again. To do that he implements innovative work processes, lowering the time and therefore the costs to produce a product. When reading the first book it all made sense. However, reading the third book of the series, “It’s not luck”, in which Goldratt tries to use the same optimizations concepts on Marketing, I got lost. Maybe it’s me, the book gets four stars on Amazon, but it just didn’t feel right when reading the book. It made me feel that he tried to make me belief that creativity, key to invention and thus innovation, could be enforced by implementing rather rigid work processes.

Creative and production processes should be approached differently

It needs to be said, Goldratt isn’t the only author that has suggested something like this. In their much praised book “The Art of Innovation”, authors Tom Kelley (of IDEO fame) and Jonathan Littman, suggest almost the same. Brainstorm a lot and put the team under a tight deadline and the creative energy will flow. By now we know that some major examples the authors use to validate their approach turned out to not as perfect as they suggested. Palm anyone? Btw, to dismiss the book for that reason would be foolish, as it contains a lot of other information that is still very valid. After all these years it is still a great read. It only proves that creativity, and thus innovation, is difficult to steer. Apparently, companies like Apple and Google were even more creative than the Palm/IDEO combination.

It all makes clear that user centric innovation is difficult. Processes that are vital to produce products and services as efficient and effective as possible are different from processes that facilitates creativity, thinking outside the box and all these other nice terms for coming up with ideas so different it sparks the imagination of big groups of customers. Not even mentioning the competence to be able to implement, market and sustain these ideas profitably. Everything disturbing the status quo will lead to (short term) loss of effectivity and efficiency, as it disturbs processes as inspired by methods like Six Sigma. That can hurt the bottom line of an organization on the short term, something share holders often don’t like and thus senior managers will shy away from.

Further Reading

  1. Andrew Smart (2013), Six Sigma Is Draining Employees’ Creativity. Retrieved from http://blogs.sap.com/innovation/human-resources/six-sigma-is-draining-employees-creativity-0295800.