On one trip I took prior to the pandemic, I visited an Advanced R&D lab and saw a lot of cool new technology. It was all stuff that I could see myself using some day. The team was working hard to overcome technical obstacles that were in the way of commercialization. These obstacles were real and difficult yet the group had made tremendous progress in a short time.
But the more difficult problem was the lack of pull for this team’s innovation from other groups that could benefit from it. It wasn’t clear how their innovations would move out of the lab and into real products at industrial scale. It seemed to me that the group was trying to push their innovations onto a market that didn’t know what to do with these technologies.
They Needed Pull Instead of Push
Without a strong connection back to customers, it’s hard for this team’s innovations to get pulled into commercialization. This is one danger of isolating innovation teams from the current business. Although the isolation frees them to work on some very cool technology without distractions, it will be even more difficult to bring that technology to market. The group lacks connections with people who are in a position to recognize the potential customer value that their innovations can bring.
Although the group itself has a strong strategy, it lacks connections to groups that have a strategic imperative to be innovative that is strong enough to pull their technology across organizational boundaries. It’s difficult to get meaningful customer feedback without connections to customers. And the group finds itself in a position of having to “sell” its ideas, instead of getting realistic feedback from stakeholders.
All of that contributes to the sense that the group is pushing technology onto groups that aren’t ready for it. I advised them to think about how to turn that push into a pull.
From Push to Pull
Pull for innovation starts with a strategy for organic growth that drives the need for innovation across the company. That strategy comes from leaders who come to believe that innovation would allow them to capitalize on new opportunities. The team did have this aspect of pull, and it had helped them get to the place where I met them.
Then it builds on a customer need that is in alignment with this strategy: what new capabilities does our technology deliver that our ultimate customers need? This requires spending some time with those customers.
Pull from Customer and Market Need
In my first book, The Mastery of Innovation, I described how Steelcase invested time in learning about the environment inside schools as they were seeking a way to enter the educational furniture market. They spent time observing kids in classrooms. They talked to everyone from school superintendents to janitors. They looked for a place where Steelcase could make a unique contribution with its capabilities and assets. They looked for an unmet need that would generate enough pull.
I advised this R&D team to spend time observing their target customers at events and just out in the world. They’ll learn where their technology could eliminate friction for this customer, or create an experience that wasn’t possible with existing technology.
A Core Hypothesis for a new product would emerge from this research that was actionable, concrete and compelling — the type of thing that would attract sponsorship from a person with the budget and resources to take it all the way to launch, even though it’s risky. Such visionary leadership helps pull new technologies into the Early Adopter stage, where the team can begin getting some fast feedback from real users.
Fast, Accurate and Honest Feedback
Finally, this team was like many Advanced R&D teams who have infrequent communications with their main sponsors on the commercial side. They had frequent technical check-ins, following an Agile process, but feedback from the business side didn’t seem to happen very often, and they spent too much time pitching when they did get in front of someone.
That doesn’t allow for the direct, honest feedback that would allow them to anticipate the questions that need to be resolved before their technology could be commercialized, and they’d experienced some loopbacks already because of that.
I advised them to try to identify the Key Decisions to make and Knowledge Gaps to close before this could be moved out of the lab and into a product team, with help from someone who knew the types of questions that their commercial partners will be asking. That feedback will pull the right activities from the team to close the gaps that remain before they can get this new idea to market.
Pull Requires Engagement
You can’t generate pull for your ideas without someone to hold the other end. This is why innovation teams work best when they stay connected to the core business, even though that will increase the temptation to pull innovation team members away to work on the core business.
This is why we need the engineers on our innovation teams to spend time observing customers, instead of keeping that direct experience inside Sales, Marketing and/or Design. This is why we need Marketing to get engaged on technology investigations.
When you have the ability to generate pull for your ideas, you can pull them through many of the obstacles that stand between your idea and your new product. As the team I visited begins to build stronger relations with downstream partners, they’ll encounter the people who can help them overcome their obstacles so that their cool technology can go into products that I hope to be able to use one day soon.