Innovation doesn’t have to be a geek thing

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Over the past few days news has emerged of Google’s secret Californian laboratory where bold new inventions and ideas are being hatched by a crack team of scientists. Known only by its mysterious concept name of “Google X” – the lab and its activities are so secret that most of Google’s own employees were unaware of its existence until an exposé appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times.

The Times reports that the secret lab has been tasked to meet 100 futuristic challenges set by Google’s senior management. Apparently, projects include bizarre missions like connecting house plants to the internet, cars that can drive without human assistance and space elevators that can send people into stratosphere without the use of rockets.

Mind boggling stuff – but also a classic example of how technology firms think about innovation. The way to come up with the next great product idea, if you follow the Google way, is to find an underground laboratory and fill it with super bright anoraks. Leave them there for years, and eventually, after much inspiration and (non-deodorised) perspiration, they will innovate the company to the next level.

The missing link in all this is, of course, the consumer. Google X isn’t just hidden from the eyes of competitors. It’s also a place where inventors and experts can innovate at a location well-insulated from the perils of the everyday market. The message is clear: while consumers might be the key to Google’s current revenues, they are deemed a barrier to any future success.

The concept of ’pure’ innovation which takes place in a vacuum bereft of any and all consumer influence has been with us as long as we have had mass-manufacturing. It was Henry Ford who first epitomised the purist view of innovation with the launch of the Model T in 1908. When later asked to explain his product development process, Ford allegedly rejected the idea of using any consumer insight by pointing out that had he consulted people they “would have told me that they wanted a faster horse”.

The way to come up with the next great product idea if you follow the Google way, is to find an underground laboratory and fill it with anoraks

There is, however, an alternative philosophy to this purist approach. Perhaps we can call it the ’dirty’ version of innovation because rather than avoid direct contact with the market, this alternative approach positively revels in it.

The argument for consumer-centric innovation goes something like this. Even a huge brand like Google only has about 10,000 research scientists working on new product development. In contrast around 700 million people use Google every day. Run the numbers. Where is the next big innovation likely to come from? A tiny smattering of brilliant researchers locked away in northern California or hundreds of millions of users intent on improving and developing search in new, even more useful directions?

Of course, not all consumers are potential innovators. Many of those 700 million users are morons in shell suits looking for a pizza.

But within every customer base there is always a smarter subset who are ahead of the rest and who have strong and enduring motivations to improve a product. These consumers were christened ’lead users’ by the MIT professor Eric von Hippel in the Eighties. Over the intervening quarter century, von Hippel and his team have created a methodology for innovation that not only includes consumers but centres the whole approach on their input. Clients like 3M can use the lead user methodology to identify these key consumers and then work with them to bring out new, more advanced product lines and do so with an impressive success rate.

In even more extreme cases, many companies have now abandoned the process of understanding consumer needs in favour of equipping their target customers with what Harvard professor Stefan Thomke calls a “tool kit for customer innovation”. Companies like International Flavor and Fragrances, for example, which serves many of the world’s largest food and cosmetics producers, has created systems that encourage customers to create their own products using IFF systems.

In theory, these two views of the innovation process – the pure and the dirty – should co-exist within most organisations. The reality of most corporate cultures, however, dictates that one approach typically dominates the other. And the deciding factor in which way an organisation innovates will always come back to the role the consumer plays inside the organisation.

Google is, and always will be, a technology firm first and a consumer brand second. Nothing wrong with that – especially when you get lucky and invent the 21st century’s most useful algorithm while working on other stuff in a lab. The challenge of innovation, however, is continuous and the gamble that Google is now making is that that same pure environment, devoid of consumer interaction, will work for the business again.

Only time – and perhaps the prototype blue spinning orb Google X is developing to predict the future – will tell.

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