When I sit back, listening for the voices of innovation and trying to take stock of what was going on in that world, I
experienced… nothing. Strange silence, a dearth
of buzzwords, muted social media. I wondered,
what the heck is going on?
I’ve been hunkered down, working on my
own projects, and I haven’t paid much attention
to the innovation rumor mill for a while. Now
that I’ve tried to connect, I am finding that we
seem to be in a twilight, where one big thing has
waned, and the next big thing is about to start
up. Unfortunately, I see nothing on the horizon.
Lest you forget, the last big thing was open
innovation, a term coined by American organizational theorist Henry Chesbrough, and it
involved companies using both ”internal and
external paths to market, as they look to advance
their technology.” That idea was coupled with
entrepreneurship, forming little entrepreneurial
groups inside of mega companies to help catalyze innovation and execution.
I hoped that these movements would catch
on, but they have not. Open innovation still
lingers around. Companies have set up portals;
consultants have made their money; and the
industry has experienced some limited success.
Entrepreneurship has been tried, some of the
values tested, and there has been limited success
with empowering employees to take responsibility and charge forward. In the end, it seems we
are settling back into the innovation-is-what-is-going-to-save-us-but-no-one-is-doing-it dilemma.
Maybe that’s the best thing for this movement. Sometimes it’s okay to take a breather on
the innovation of innovation. I see bits and pieces of every innovation movement from the past
twenty years, and I suspect that’s for the best. Of
course, that doesn’t leave the consultants much
to do while they wait for the academics to publish the next fad.
I do see two things that excite me. The first is
the DIY phenomenon, and I include crowd-fund-ing sites like Kickstarter.com in that as well. In
case you have been hiding in a cave, the DIY/
maker movement is fascinating. Imagine garage-based inventors, only now they are sharp, driven
folk. Young people with no real attachments,
who haven’t found jobs (or maybe don’t want
them), and some who won’t work in traditional
cubical farms. What they share is a passion.
Members of this movement share a passion for
gadgets and concepts. So they build; they build
gadgets or magazines or games or clothes. They
build things that they want to build, not some-
thing a manager tells them they have to build.
Along comes Kickstarter.com. With a video
camera and a pitch, the entrepreneurs propose
the idea to people all over the globe for an
opportunity (funding) to make the gadget a reality. What I find most interesting is the plethora of
product ideas — from a film that needs financing to a new bicycle bell, for which the inventor
was looking for $20,000 and raised more than
$285,000. By far, the most lucrative Kickstarter
projects have been in the realm of 3D printing.
For instance, Formlabs raised $2,945,885 in
30 days in 2012, while The Buccaneer, raised
$1,438,765 in June 2013.
This is an interesting spin on DIY, and it
could shine a light on what the future of product
innovation may be. Many of you have heard of
MakerBot, a very early, open-source 3D printer.
At least one of the founding members came from
a nonprofit whose purpose was to move the 3D
printer world forward. MakerBot started shipping
kits in 2009 and pioneered the simplified design
of the device, raising awareness of what was possible. You can probably guess what happened next.
In June 2013, one of the big guys, Stratasys Inc.,
bought the company for more than $400 million.
As the machine went through its last iteration,
the open source concept was rethought and eventually abandoned in a “don’t touch, don’t look”
scenario. I suppose that’s how a startup gets prepared to go on the block, but that’s another story.
It has dawned on me that this might be the
beginning of another movement in innovation.
If you think about it, it may be a reversion to the
old garage inventor method, only in this case
there are all sorts of companies out there with
large sacks of cash (since they have not been
investing for the past few years) waiting to scoop
up commercialized innovation.
Nearly every design engineer I know has an
idea he or she wants to explore. Many engineers
are frustrated with corporate America, and well,
they should be. Many get to work on what are
laughably called “evolutionary improvements”
instead of revolutionary new product developments. It would certainly do my heart good to
see more design engineers out there pitching
ideas on Kickstarter.
The second topic of interest is the slow unrav-
eling of the strangle hold Six Sigma had on new
product development (NPD). I am beginning to
see some light at the end of that particularly dark
tunnel. One of our favorite customers, caught in
the web of misappli-
cation, has begun
to figure out how
dent has set up a
team outside of
and it reports
directly to him. He
has given them con-
trol over their own
budget. They have
selected their own
team members, and
they have very clear
though not neces-
sarily directions as to
what product(s) they
need to develop.
Let’s take a look at what this executive has
done right. First, the big boss is involved, which
is critical because change must be supported
from the top. Second, they have autonomy.
Third, they are outside of the HQ glare. Fourth,
they have chosen their own team. Fifth, the
goals are actionable — and while they get pick
their own projects, they maintain accountability.
This gives me hope.
To answer my own question about what’s happening in the busy world of innovation, nothing
is shouting at me right now, but there are undercurrents that are encouraging.
People are innovating. Universities are seeing
more corporate investment in innovative technologies, the DIY movement has legs — and,
finally, a funding source for early work. We are
witnessing more onshoring, and the idiocy of Six
Sigma has been found out. Now, if we can just
keep the academics and consultants from publishing the next best thing, we might be able to
get something accomplished.
Mike Rainone is the co-founder of
PCDworks, a technology development firm specializing in breakthrough product innovation.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and
Sometimes it’s okay to take a breather on the innovation of innovation.
By Mike Rainone
“Now, if we can just
keep the academics
and consultants from
publishing the next
best thing, we might
be able to get something accomplished.”