The science of innovation

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As someone who was originally trained as a physicist, I am often asked how I have found myself in an innovation insight and research role – something more commonly associated with social science rather than technical disciplines. I can be honest and reply that, at the outset of my career, I certainly didn’t envisage myself where I am today. However, nor is my job at odds with my physical science background.

Innovation is essentially a problem-generating (finding unmet needs) and problem-solving (generating solutions) process. My science training always taught me that a problem is best approached in a structured way – breaking it into manageable chunks to uncover and understand the evidence that points to the solution. Innovation is a multidisciplinary challenge – and subdivision facilitates matching the most appropriate analysis tool to each task. That’s why we use an end-to-end innovation process that we call Potential Realised. Its Phase 0 front-end innovation activity embodies this structured thinking in the same way as technology development phases do later on.

In the front-end phase, we analyse the opportunity from several different perspectives to make sure we understand the complete picture. We look into the future through a sort of ‘information telescope’ to scan horizons for new trends, technologies, expectations and the changing attitudes in society that are likely to direct future markets. This big picture often identifies hotspots that we can zoom into and inspect at a higher resolution, through an ‘innovation microscope’ – using direct observations to categorise and dissect markets to learn, measure and prioritise the ideas that will define innovation. We create hypotheses and invent in-vitro and in-vivo experiments to challenge them and systematically build evidence behind the discovery.

You could say we take a ‘bifocal’ outlook, visualising and plotting both the near and far-off opportunities – patterns that could be the foundations for growth for our clients. At each step along the way, we are filtering information and insights – leaving on the table only the opportunities that are relevant to the market and our client’s business.

In summary, we scan, inspect, observe, dissect, experiment, measure, plot, filter and focus. Yes, innovation as a whole is a creative process, and some might even argue that it is an art. But that doesn’t mean we should not apply a little science at the front end to guide us on our way!

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Nicki Sutton

Senior innovation consultant