Archive for November 24th, 2010

November 24, 2010

The Execution of Innovation

by jchong10

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. – Thomas Edison

Last Friday, I went up to Dartmouth College to attend a lecture by Tuck professor Chris Trimble about the execution challenge of innovation. Naturally, as a business school professor, he focused on how companies implement innovative ideas: specifically, how to manage the inevitable conflict between keeping the performance engine running and dedicating resources to new ideas that have unpredictable outcomes. According to Trimble, the ideal model is to have a dedicated team working alongside shared staff who ensure that the dedicated team can take advantage of the organization’s resources.

Professor Trimble’s talk was too specific to the company context to directly apply to our work at IIH, but it did remind me of another issue that often keeps me up at night. This problem also relates to the execution of innovation, but in two senses of the word “execution”: how ideas are implemented, and how ideas die.

In my undergraduate days, I was often dismayed to see my friends’ amazing engineering projects get left in the lab at the end of the term. Despite enthusiastic feedback from professors and peers, projects that one could easily imagine making it on the field or in the market were left to languish. Take a look at the MIT D-Lab project site. So many great ideas, but I can count on one hand how many of these projects are still alive, if not sputtering along.

The problem of abandoned ideas is easy to understand. Students have classes, activities and the job search to worry about, so they don’t have the time or energy to keep working on a project when the next term starts. And after graduation, many students just do not have the risk tolerance or the freedom to fully commit. Some schools have tried to mitigate the risk and opportunity cost of these ventures by providing grants and linking students up with entrepreneurial networks. But these only work if this student wants to keep working on the project.

If students don’t have the motivation to keep their projects alive, we run into the problem of “trapped inspiration”: great ideas that get stuck because they are not in the hands of people who want to implement them. In an ideal world, these ideas would be passed on to people who are the desire, resources and energy to commit to realizing them. But herein lies another problem: transferring information about the idea. Sure, you can send over your CAD files and your PowerPoint pitches and reports, but you’ll probably have to be on call if the implementor runs into any problems. And if your communication is via phone or e-mail, you’d better hope that you both speak the same language when you’re talking about the prototype.

This brings me to my next point: having a common language of design is crucial to efficient technology transfer. If people can easily identify different elements of prototypes (e.g. “the parallelogram” in a tangram set or ” a 4×2 Lego piece”), they can talk about them. With a built-in base level of mutual understanding, things just get done faster.

We’re trying to establish a common language of design with our MEDIKits, which are DIY kits that allow doctors and nurses to prototype their own medical equipment. The diagnostics kit, for example uses color-coded puzzle pieces. Health workers can build their own diagnostic tests and share them with others by simply MMS-ing a picture or sending a text with descriptions of the pieces they used. Thus, two nurses with identical kits can efficiently share prototypes even if they live in different countries.

But color-coded pieces are just a start – maybe we could use different patterns as well. We’d love to hear more thoughts on how we might create a common language of design – please comment if you have ideas!



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