Generating ideas consistently for driving business has been a core management challenge. Among a few others, Idea Lab, Bell Labs, and Edison’s Menlo Park Lab are idea factories. Every manager is after such labs for forming a consistent flow of ideas. But how to create them is a tough call. As ideas are precious currency, generating ideas should not have to be a mysterious process. The image of the lone genius inventing from scratch does not resemble innovation successes. Instead, businesses that constantly innovate have systemized the production of ideas. How we can replicate them through a systematic management practice is our target of an investigation.
One of the management practices has been the knowledge brokering cycle, consisting of four phases. It begins with capturing good ideas and keeping already captured ideas alive. The 3rd phase is about imagining new usages of old ideas. And the last step is about putting the most promising ideas to test. Well, they make sense; but how I am going to generate ideas? Are there reoccurring patterns around which we can run this knowledge brokering cycle? There appear to be five reoccurring patterns:
- Getting jobs done better, preferably at less cost
- Delegate roles from humans to machines
- Replace the role of mechanical components with electromechanical and electronics
- Replace hardware with software
- Create and leverage scale, scope, and positive externalities
Getting jobs done better—demands the fusion of empathy, passion for perfection, and technology
All the products have been evolving due to the purpose of helping people perform their jobs better. Hence, people are after ideas. In addition to the evolution of existing products, we are innovating new ones. We are also creating siblings for serving market segment-specific jobs increasingly better. For this purpose, empathy and passion for perfection are our vital traits for increasingly knowing better about customers’ needs. The evolution of products is also expanding the scope of establishing interfaces between them to play an increasingly collective role to execute jobs better. At the core of this evolution and development of new ones is technology progression.
Scientific discoveries leading to technological advancement have been widening the scope of profitably implementable ideas. Hence, empathy, passion for perfection, and technology portfolio should be fused to empower consistent idea generation. As human beings have an endless desire to get jobs done better, empathy and passion for perfection will always find ideas. But a suitable technology core is essential to implement them profitably. Furthermore, the advancement of technology core will also empower empathy and passion for digging for new ideas.
For example, due to the empathy of helping people communicate better, Edison was creating a flow of ideas for improving the telegraph. But his ability of idea generation and implementation was not only limited by empathy, but also by the availability of technology core. The development of electronic technology increased the amenability of ideation in improving the quality and efficiency of the telegraph. Subsequent development of electronics and software progressed it further. Ironically, the development of software-based communication systems made the telegraph obsolete. Hence, the dynamics of ideation out of empathy, passion for perfection, and technology play a vital role in generating ideas in evolving products and also making them obsolete.
Delegate roles from humans to machines
Although we hate machines taking over our jobs, human beings have an endless desire of delegating roles from themselves to machines. Hence, we like TV remote control, automated opening and closing of the elevator doors, and many more. Therefore, generating ideas for evolving products and processes for delegating roles from humans to machines is an endless frontier. Such role delegation is at the core of productivity improvement and wastage reduction. Consequentially, both quality and cost experience positive implications from ideas of automation.
Let’s look into the flying airplane. Over the last 70 years, the accident rate in civil aviation has been consistently falling. The comfort has been increasing. At the core of this advancement has been the consistent flow of ideas for reducing the workload of pilots. As a result, despite the growing size and complexity of air crafts, we have not demanded more pilots in cockpits or a higher workload. Similarly, due to the increasing delegation of roles from humans to machines in making cars, factories have been producing increasingly more complex cars with fewer defects. Similarly, our highly complex (internally) smartphones are very easy to use. Hence, the evolution of all products and processes, and the development of new ones have been demanding an endless flow of ideas for role delegation. Therefore, an idea factory for endlessly generating ideas should focus on ideas for human role delegation.
Technology plays a vital role in developing meaningful ideas. For example, Steve Jobs was after the idea of delegating the human role in memorizing and typing error-free text commands to operate computers. But text-based user interfaces and slow underlying computing devices were not suitable to generate appropriate ideas. Hence, empathy and passion for perfection faced the limit. The development of the graphical user interface opened a new runway to produce ideas.
Replace the role of mechanical components with electromechanical and electronics
If we look into the evolution of the products around us, we will observe that ideas of replacing mechanical components are in action. For example, mechanical switches are being replaced with electronics for higher quality and lower cost. Similarly, electro-mechanical relays are being replaced with photo relays.
Let’s look into the user interfaces of all kinds of products starting from microwave ovens to cars. Mechanical knobs are being replaced with electronics. Both externally and internally, all innovations have been evolving due to a constant flow of ideas of replacing mechanical components with electromechanical and electronics. Hence, this has been an important area for the idea factory to investigate for consistently generating ideas.
Replace hardware with software—a powerful area for generating ideas
Let’s compare our smartphone with the Blackberry used 15 years ago. One notable difference has been the replacement of the hardware keyboard with a software one. Due to the availability of low-cost, but increasingly powerful microprocessors, ideas as software are gaining momentum. Already, many products and processes have evolved due to the idea of replacing hardware components with software.
By leveraging a flow of ideas or replacing hardware with software, the mobile handset has emerged as a software gadget. As we all know, the telephone handset was sued to be an electromechanical machine in the early 20th century. It became an electronic one in the 1970s. Like the evolution of the telephone, many other products have been evolving, lately with the idea of replacing hardware with software. This is a so much powerful area of the idea that automobiles are now targeted to be software-intensive machines. Hence, this is a very powerful area for the idea factory to work on in generating ideas endlessly.
Creating and leveraging scale, scope, and positive externalities should be a target for generating ideas
The success of innovation depends on creating and leveraging economies of scale, scope, and positive externalities. Hence, the idea factory should focus on generating ideas for creating and leveraging these effects. For example, the idea of using off-the-shelf components increases scale advantage. On the other hand, the idea of developing common assets for a family of products creates a scope advantage. Furthermore, among others, the idea of opening the option of 3rd party component plug-ins creates positive externality effects. Due to technology progression, the window of deriving benefits from scale, scope, and externalities is getting increasingly wider. Hence, innovators must pay attention to generating ideas to take advantage of them.
As some authors have mentioned, sustaining innovation is the knowledge brokering cycle. But given generic description is not good enough for practitioners. Hence, we need to move closer to reality so that we can succeed in helping innovators generate ideas. If the endless opportunity of idea generation areas is not available, preaching of capturing good ideas does make not much sense. Hence, we believe that this article will update sensitizing preaching to practice-level guidance.