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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Harnessing the Secret Structure of Innovation 03-26


Sustained innovation success is not the result of artful intuition or heroic vision but of a deliberate search using key information signals.

In an era of low growth, companies need innovation more than ever. Leaders can draw on a large body of theory and precedent in pursuit of innovation, ranging from advice on choosing the right spaces to optimizing the product development process to establishing a culture of creativity.1 In practice, though, innovation remains more of an art than a science.

But it doesn’t need to be.

In our research with the London Institute, we made an exciting discovery.2 Innovation, much like marketing and human resources, can be made less reliant on artful intuition by using information in new ways. But this requires a change in perspective: We need to view innovation not as the product of luck or extraordinary vision but as the result of a deliberate search process. This process exploits the underlying structure of successful innovation to identify key information signals, which in turn can be harnessed to construct an advantaged innovation strategy.

Innovation in Legoland

Let’s illustrate the idea using Lego bricks. Think back to your childhood days. You’re in a room with two of your friends, playing with a big box of Legos (say, the beloved “fire station” set). All three of you have the same goal in mind: building as many new toys as possible. As you play, each of you searches through the box and chooses the bricks you believe will help you reach this goal.

Let’s now suppose each of you approaches this differently. Your friend Joey uses what we call an impatient strategy, carefully picking Lego men and their firefighting hats to immediately produce viable toys. You follow your intuition, picking random bricks that look intriguing. Meanwhile, your friend Jill chooses pieces such as axles, wheels, and small base plates that she noticed are common in more complex toys, even though she is not able to use them immediately to produce simpler toys. We call Jill’s approach a patient strategy.

At the end of the afternoon, who will have innovated the most?3 That is, who will have built the most new toys? Our simulations show that this depends on several factors. In the beginning, Joey will lead the way, surging ahead with his impatient strategy. But as the game progresses, fate will appear to shift. Jill’s early moves will begin to seem serendipitous when she’s able to assemble complex fire trucks from her choice of initially useless axles and wheels. It will appear that she was lucky, but we will soon see that she effectively harnessed serendipity.

What about you? Picking components without using any information, you will have built the fewest toys. Your friends had an information-enabled strategy, while you relied only on intuition and chance. 

What can we learn from this? If innovation is a search process, then your component choices today matter greatly in terms of the options they will open up to you tomorrow. Do you pick components that quickly form simple products and give you a return now, or do you choose the components that give you a higher future option value?

We analyzed the mathematics of innovation as a search process for viable product designs (toys) across a universe of components (bricks). We then tested our insights using historical data on innovations in four real environments and made a surprising discovery. You can have an advantaged innovation strategy by using information about the unfolding process of innovation. But there isn’t one superior strategy. The optimal strategy is both time-dependent (as in the Lego game) and space/sector-dependent — Lego is just one of many innovation spaces, each of which has its own characteristics. In innovation, as in business strategy, winning strategies depend on context.

The exhibit below, "Information-Enabled Innovation Strategies Outperform," demonstrates three crucial insights. First, information-enabled strategies outperform strategies that do not use the information generated by the search process. Second, in an earlier phase of the game, an impatient strategy outperforms; in later stages, a patient strategy does. Critically, third, it is possible to have an adaptive strategy, one that changes as the game unfolds and that outperforms in all phases of the game. Developing an adaptive strategy requires you to know when to switch from Joey’s approach to Jill’s. The switching point is knowable and occurs when the complexity of products (the number of unique Lego bricks in each toy) starts to level off. 



Applying the Insight

How can companies harness these insights in practice? To answer this question, we ran simulations based on detailed historical data for a range of datasets, from culinary arts and music to language and software technologies such as those used by Uber, Instagram, and Dropbox. From our findings, we distilled a five-step process for constructing an information-advantaged innovation strategy.

Step 1. Choose your space: Where to play?

The features of your innovation space matter, so it’s important to make a deliberate choice about where you want to compete. Interestingly, it’s not enough to analyze markets or anticipate customers’ needs. To innovate successfully, you also need to understand the structure of your innovation space.
Start by taking a snapshot of key competing products and their components. How complex are the products, and do you have access to the components? As a rule of thumb, choose spaces where product complexity is still low and where you have access to the most prevalent components.


By focusing on immature spaces, you can get ahead of competitors by first employing a rapid-yield, impatient strategy and then later switching to a more patient strategy with delayed rewards. Uber International CV provides a good example. The company entered the embryonic peer-to-peer ride-sharing space three years after it was founded in 2009 as a limousine commissioning company. Uber chose its space wisely: The ride-sharing industry was immature, product complexity was low, and the necessary components were easily accessible. The impatient strategy was to get to market quickly with a ride-sharing app. As we are learning, there is also now what appears to be a patient strategy at work at Uber — self-driving technology with a much higher level of complexity and a much longer period of gestation.

Reproduced from MITSLOAN Management Review