Could the greatest innovation of all time be a method of innovation? Roger Smith proposed this in The Evolution of Innovation. Is such a method out there? The answer is yes.
Suppose you want to come up with a new product idea. Where do you begin? What method would you use? Conventional thinking suggests three possible directions. First, we could seek insights from our customers through research and observation (Voice of the Customer). Second, we could emulate what inventors like Edison and Disney did to create new ideas (Voice of the Expert). Or we could seek ideas from competitors and other sources using the "open" mindset (Voice of the Market).
There is a fourth source - The Voice of the Product1. Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues discovered the surprising insight that innovative products tend to follow certain patterns. It is similar to the notion of TRIZ which is a set of patterns for solving problems. Innovative products share common patterns because their inventors unknowingly follow patterns when generating new product ideas. These patterns become the DNA of ideas2. If you can extract the DNA and implant it into other products and services, you can innovate.
A majority of new and inventive products can be categorized according to only five patterns:
- Subtraction: Taking an essential component away
- Task Unification: Assigning an additional job to an existing product
- Multiplication: Making a copy of a component but changing it in some way
- Division: Functionally or physically dividing a component or product
- Attribute Dependency: Creating new (or breaking existing) dependencies between attributes of a product or service and its environment
A systematic process called S.I.T. has been developed to apply these patterns. The patterns become “thinking tools” to identify new ideas. This process is called function follows form (FFF), a term coined by cognitive psychologist Ronald Finke. Instead of innovating by identifying a “function” or need and then creating a product, one first manipulates the existing product and considers how the new form could be beneficial.
Yoni Stern and Amnon Levav describe it as follows:
"Using FFF, one develops products in the reverse order to the market research process. One begins with an existing concept or product — a list of the product’s physical components and its environment. Then one of the five thinking tools is used to theoretically manipulate the product. These new “virtual products” are immediately assessed as to their value and feasibility. If the virtual product has market potential and falls within existing company and technological constraints, it undergoes needed minor adaptations and is considered worthy of follow-up. Market knowledge is used as a filter rather than the starting point; ideas generated are likely to be different from those of competitors."
People find it difficult to believe that innovation is a skill, not a gift. With a method like S.I.T., anyone can learn to innovate anything, anytime. If a better method evolves, I hope to be among the first to hear about it.1. Goldenberg, Jacob and David Mazursky. "The Voice of the Product: Templates of New Product Emgergence". Creativity and Innovation Management September 1999: 157-164.
2. Stern, Yoni, and Amnon Levav. "The DNA of Ideas". BIO-IT WORLD April 2005: 56-57.