Innovation in “A Big Company” – Part 1

I know what you’re thinking… innovation in a big company is an oxymoron, can’t be done. And you’re probably justified in thinking so. But it can be done. It has been done. And it will be done again.

What enables some products to innovate decades into their existence, while others never get past their first innovative idea? First, those product teams understand that the type of innovation needed varies over time and so they plan accordingly and measure themselves appropriately. Second, they take their successes and failures and learn from them. Finally, they look for common patterns so they can replicate their success across the entire organization.

But it starts with understanding the lifecycle of innovation.

The Innovation Lifecycle

Innovation graphic

The definition of innovation is “something new or different.” Most commonly, innovation is thought of as a whole new something – a new startup, a new product line, a new product class or even a net new market. Let’s call this Revolutionary Innovation. This is a well understood model and so I will discuss it only briefly as it pertains to a big company. What I want to highlight though, is that big companies with successful multi-billion dollar product lines offer a lot of opportunity for a whole other kind of innovation that I’ll call Evolutionary Innovation – this is innovation that happens within the confines of an existing product to keep it fresh and competitive. Such innovation can be just as rewarding as the revolutionary kind – indeed, the challenge of creating something new out of existing parts and with all sorts of constraining factors is often far more rewarding than clean-slate innovation for me.

The innovation lifecycle of a product is depicted in the diagram. Every reasonably successful product starts life with some revolutionary innovation, either tapping into a new market or disrupting an existing market. There is always some big-bang innovation that propels it into orbit, shown as the steep blue ramp. From an innovation perspective, this is the best period of the product’s life – the most innovation happening in the shortest period of time. The main reason is that you’re operating with a clean slate, with nothing to slow the pace of innovation implementation. Once the product is established in the market, though, a major and permanent change happens – the rate of innovation slows down because innovation must be balanced with other priorities: investment in sales & marketing, closing/completing feature gaps, servicing a rapidly growing customer base, improving product quality in response to limitations in the early product versions exposed by hyper-growth. This is also often the time that the visionaries that drove the initial innovation depart, eliminating both the depth of product knowledge but more importantly the engine of innovation. These are big head winds that can easily stall innovation to a point where the product stagnates and becomes vulnerable. The risk is not just from the next big revolutionary innovation but just as much from other similar products that leapfrog it with evolutionary innovations. If the innovation is not revived in time, the product eventually dies (red line in the picture).

Thus, for a product to be truly successful i.e. long-lived, it must transition from the Revolutionary innovation phase to this new phase of Evolutionary innovation, shown by the green line. In this phase, innovation occurs in waves as the technology and market landscape evolves. However, the pace of innovation tends to slow down over time as the product gets “heavier” – it takes longer to get a new idea into the product for all the reasons I mentioned before. Driving innovation into the product in such circumstances requires all kinds of skill (and immense energy) beyond just having a cool idea. You need to find a way to implement that idea that makes it easy for it to get incorporated into the product. Not too long ago, I was hired by the Advanced Development group of a previous employer to find a solution to the threat from a hyper-growth startup that was invading our space. I had done a similar product in the past so I knew what it should look like architecturally. The question was, what components should I use to build it? Everybody in the group advised me – urged me – not to use the stuff that the mainstream product was based on, and instead to do it using Linux components because we could do it faster that way. I decided to not only use the existing product components, but also got the mainstream product group to loan us four engineers to work in our team. We got a full-function prototype done in less than six months and the project was a huge hit. The engineers went back to the product group with the code and the team assigned to this new feature eventually grew to 120 people.

Why does this model matter? First, if we’re going to explore whether a big company can innovate, we need to understand that there are different kinds of innovation and be clear about which one applies when. Second, we need to understand the challenges companies face in driving this innovation and what it takes to overcome them.

Over the next few posts, we will look at some EMC case studies of evolutionary innovation. We’ll talk about why these succeeded – the techniques to overcome the head winds and deliver innovation of both kinds in a big company.

-Sudhir Srinivasan @DoctorSudhir

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