The term “arms race” describes an escalating competition between nations for superiority in the development and accumulation of weapons. The concept has been further applied to a number of disciplines and situations (evolutionary biology, mathematical decision making, logic and computer science, amongst others) in which escalating competition arises from two or more opposing groups striving to outdo one another. This concept can also be applied to the field of innovation, whereby competition between companies occurs for superiority in the development and accumulation of innovative products. This is termed an “innovation race.”
There are parallels between the resources wasted in an arms race and those wasted during the current innovation race between larger companies. These wasted resources can be grouped around three themes: product waste, time waste, and talent waste. Outlined ahead are strategies designed to prevent excessive waste in these three areas during the innovation cycle.
1. Product waste
When conducting innovation cycles, think about how many product innovations are built in relation to product innovations that are actually used by your customer. This ratio is, for most companies, hugely out of balance. Too many products are being developed, with too little added value to the business or the end user. There are numerous reasons why the production/value ratio may be suboptimal, but two primary reasons are:
1. Not building products around universal problems and themes
You should always aim for solutions that solve universal, generalizable problems for your customer. For example, the app “Tikkie” was created to address the highly relatable issue of getting paid expediently.
2. Lack of consideration of product desirability and viability
One reason this happens is that innovation teams often assume they know everything there is to know about their customers. That assumption creates a “confirmation bias,” so these teams often don’t see the need for a validation process. Another reason why there may be too little focus on validation is due to pressure from senior management. If an organization is experiencing a lagging innovative period, the pressure to find and build successful products will be high.
While this should create a greater focus on product validation, we often see that the opposite is true: companies try to build products as fast as possible, and thereby reduce the time spent on validation.
2. Time waste
The challenge of time waste can be broken down into three different categories: Building products and features your customers don’t need, want, or use; slow development—caused by either a lack of skills or an unstreamlined process; and a lack of delivery speed. Let’s dig into that last one.
Successful corporate innovation teams deliver and ship products and features fast. They don't waste time building the best product ever made, they ship, validate, and iterate. What's the secret ingredient to fast delivery?
Clarity. Clarity around your goals, and the process for achieving them most effectively. Having clarity in these two areas is how successful companies deliver the best results while also reducing time waste.
3. Talent waste
Talent wastage tends to occur primarily in two ways. The first is whereby the organizational innovation culture fails to attract the necessary talent for building the best products. This can lead to a high turnover of potential talent, and reduce organizational efficiency. Establishing and constantly improving a culture of innovation should always be a strategic priority. The second instance of talent wastage occurs when talent is not deployed optimally. This is most often the case when an innovation team is incomplete, creating a situation in which various talents are spread sub-optimally across multiple (sub)roles.
Focussing solely on outperforming competitors creates losses in performance, efficiency, and innovation. Such “arms races” inherently represent an exercise in futility, with competitors spending vast amounts to try and stay ahead, yet producing little or no tangible advantage or desirable outcome. Simply stockpiling more innovations than your competitors leads to a waste of product, time and talent.
Within innovation, one should aim for less: less production, and less waste. In doing so, however, we are able to achieve considerably more: more validation, more specialized talent — more innovation. In summation, to best prevent and eliminate innovation waste:
- Build products around universal problems that are generalizable.
- Invest greater time and resources to the validation cycle.
- Utilize the framework of a “clarity tripod” for goal clarity, role clarity, and process clarity.
- Always build with the end product in mind: build for scale and in such a way that allows immediate integration of the product back into the organization.
- Select a team comprising of ready-to-build, T-shaped specialists.
- Make building an innovation culture a strategic priority.
Goal clarity: Don’t focus only on building the product that solves your customer’s needs. Focus also on building a product that is ready to embed into your organization, from both a technical and cultural perspective.
Process clarity: Reduce time waste by working within a structured innovation process, one with which every team member has working experience. This way, you don’t waste time with educating team members on the working style during the innovation process. If the speed of implementation is paramount, think ready-to-start, not ready-to-educate.