Art and Science of Product Innovation

Product InnovationCreating the “Impossible”

In my mind, the black art of innovation and the white science of problem solving go hand in hand to “create the impossible”. One needs both for a commercial outcome.

Famous artists follow two broad processes:

  • quick and creative – Picasso, Pollock
  • careful and methodical – Monet (he planted water lilies before painting them)

Both results are innovative: they create something new that hadn’t been before.
However, the probability of commercial success with the “careful and methodical” process is far higher, in my opinion. Here is why:

White Science of Problem solving

For commercial success start by describing the problem(s) in as few words as possible.
Validate the root cause of problem you are wanting to solve with an innovative design. The more problems to solve, the scale of the design challenge increases.

On the Kimberley Kruiser project, we had a list of 163 problems to solve. This was compiled from over 20 interviews with prospective customers who had existing (competitors products). They really understood the problems.  They loved giving feedback.
Follow a structured process of classification to prioritise the “vital few”.
This takes time. It took over a year in the Kruiser project and resulted in side projects to solve before tackling the main integrated design.

This is the same process for services design. However, there is one key “must do”:

Keep it Highly Visual

A few years after the Columbia Space shuttle explosion in early 2003, I had the benefit of listening to one of the technical auditors give his assessment of both the root cause of the problem and how to reduce the probability of it occurring again. “Visualise the problem quickly and early”, “Have all information up on the big (projected) screen for all to see”, “Complex problems are best solved with multiple people looking at the same visuals”,  “Individual interconnected computer screens with messaging was a disaster”.

We follow a careful and methodical process that is highly visual:

  • It is anchored in problem solving and a desire to step beyond the present.

Without the theory, experience will not teach

In 1989, I had the pleasure of a class with Edwards Demming known for his work in the field of Quality Management. He had a simple sign at the front of the class “Without the theory, experience will not teach”. He hated slogans but for this class it was key.

This belief has not left my side since. Until the theory is understood for the root cause of the problem(s), it is hard to get the right solution. Persevere. This is the best investment in time.

For the automatic waterless toilet project, getting the theory took me to Cornell University (by email and phone). Once understood and proof was available, the solution could be worked on confidently. It only cost me my time. Educators love sharing insights to theory.

Developing Solutions is the Creative Part

This is less structured and the black art of ideas and communication in a team.
You already do this everyday in any case. it isn’t new. It just becomes focussed.

  • It requires intense brainstorming in a team environment.
  • It requires multiple iterations to see solutions.

For the electric island bed project, the solution required use of new electric actuators. It is not uncommon that totally new materials solve many issues. Researching for these is a core skill in this step.

Final Reverse Logic Test

When you have the final design of service or product or both, standup and play back how this solution solves the problem(s) listed. Ask the question: Is this real?

Listen for the penny to drop!

Smartphone app

This process is carried out in the field, in the workplace and on the phone.
It is a collaborative project and relies on accurately capturing the voice of the customer.
There are several collaborative apps that work well and reduce the administrative “time wasters”.

Thank you for your time.


Published by

Bruce Loxton

Bruce Loxton is often described as an “engineers, engineer”. His career has included mechanical, mining, electrical and chemical engineering. Combine his passion for data and automation with business sales and delivery teams for a great-digitized process. However, Bruce is a thinker on design, strategy and working in teams. He has achieved “impossible” projects over his career by targeting the big and the bold. Innovation seems to come naturally to the very structured thought process on problem solving and value. Bruce was Non-Executive Chairman of Qinetiq Australia for 6 years till 2017. Qinetiq is Global Defence Technology provider with a market cap of $1Bn & listed (QQ.L). He is an Alumnus of: Harvard Business School, USC in LA, and IMD in Lausanne. He is a former Council Member, Chem. Eng Foundation, Uni of Sydney.

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