When Old School Innovation Meets new School
When I was a young engineer at Whirlpool Corporation I had a boss that continually told his team, "You can't schedule invention". By that he meant that once a project had started, you needed to rely on existing concepts and technologies in order to bring a product to fruition in a timely manner. Invention, in his mind, needed to take place in a non-scheduled, non-stressed environment. Successful learning could be "put on a shelf" until it was time to be applied in a specific product application.
As my career advanced and I migrated into marketing I was told something very similar. "There's no time to do front-end market research once a project has started". Research was to be done between projects, and again, the learning was to be tabled until it could be applied in a timely manner.
Ok, so both of these mentalities existed in a traditional, stage-gate setting where a team was assembled, given a specific goal and a corresponding timeline. Today, many companies have moved beyond this approach with the concepts of "Lean" and "Agile". The philosophy is to experiment, learn quickly, adapt and try again. There are tremendous benefits to this new approach. For most groups, a product can be successfully launched quicker, and with far less investment along the way (e.g. physical prototypes, detailed business plans, etc.). But I question if these approaches negate the need for having learning at your fingertips that is not project specific. I firmly believe that you still cannot schedule invention, and that research (like consumer understanding) should not be on the critical path of a project. However, it must exist to be successful.
The pendulum has swung in the opposing direction. My impression is that many organizations are dropping or minimizing traditional R&D groups and efforts focused specifically on consumer understanding. The thinking seems to be that they'll learn on the fly and adapt as needed. While that may work for incremental innovation (e.g. "We know this works, let's see what happens if we tweak it this way") I don't see how it can work with anything approaching breakthrough. I believe that it is time to bring the pendulum back to the middle and incorporate the best of both worlds. Invest in technology and see what is possible. Put that learning on the shelf for future teams to use. Likewise, continually invest in consumer understanding. When a project is underway, be it lean, agile or both, draw on this information for the experimentation phase and adapt according to the specific project learning and the existing understanding. There's plenty of room to experiment with knowledge in hand. You can never know too much about your target customers and their unmet needs. And there's never a surplus of cool new technology that you can apply in bold ways. Technology and consumer understanding should serve as the foundation of an organization. And the foundation should be solid and continually maintained. New projects or offerings should then build upon this foundation. We all know that a structure built without a solid foundation will not stand long.
I'd love to see organizations take this approach and see that there is tremendous benefits from both the old and the new way of developing new products and businesses. It is great, in fact critical, to adapt and update processes over time. New should always enhance old, but it need not always replace it completely.