There are two pathways to pursue innovation. The first pathway is about finding new solutions for a Job To Be Done for which no good solutions exist or customers are unhappy with existing solutions. A number of years ago customers struggled to sell stuff they owned and buy stuff others wanted to sell. Consumers resorted to Garage sale, Saturday Flea markets, and classified ads to get this Job done. However, all of these solutions were ad-hoc and many customers were unsatisfied with these solutions. The true innovation for this Job To Be Done came from eBay, where buying and selling process is made much more efficient with the help of electronic tools and business rules.
The second pathway to innovation is about identifying a capability, phenomena or technology and then discovering a Job that can be done leveraging this capability at hand. Almost all accidental innovations take place through this pathway. A number of years ago a scientist at 3M discovered a new compound while searching for a new glue.
Unfortunately, the new compound did not possess the adhesive strength characteristics of typical glue. Not knowing what this compound could be used for, it was left in the shelf for a number of years. Several years later, when Art Frey was in church with his choir group, he was frustrated with his inability to mark certain songs while flipping through the songbook without making a permanent mark or damaging the book. It then occurred to him that what he needed to get this Job Done (making a temporary mark of the songs without damaging the book or permanent alteration) was a glue with very poor adhesive strength. He realized that the compound that has been waiting in the shelf could be used to solve the problem. Thus the Post-It-Notes was born.
The best way to execute the first pathway to innovation is to spend a good amount of time understanding and scoping the Job To Be Done (i.e., a problem to be solved, an innovation opportunity). The biggest mistake many teams commit is to generate ideas first. Our ideas have better chance of success when we have spent enough time exploring what problem we want to solve. Once the problem to solve is clear, we can explore ideas within and outside the paradigms. We can use techniques that range from Classical Brainstorming to Imaginary Brainstorming to Biomimicry towards this.
The second pathway is the path taken by accidental innovation. For example, Viagra was born this way. In the late 1980's Pfizer was experimenting with a drug for reducing hypertension and angina. After the end of clinical trials, Pfizer could not demonstrate statistically significant improvements from the usage of the experimental drug. Therefore, Pfizer asked the participants in the clinical trails to return the unused medicine. Then they realized that many men were not returning the drug since it was the answer to some other problem to be solved, namely erectile dysfunction disease.
The question for us is to figure out how to increase the frequency and quality of happy accidents. The answer is to systematically follow the pathway two. First, spend enough time to understand the characteristics and features of the capability at hand. Then ideate around what Jobs could use this capability at hand. To demonstrate this principle, I often distribute paper clips to my audience and ask them to identify two dozen new uses for the paper clip. Often my audience would surprise me with innovative uses for the paper clips. That is essentially the directed approach to innovation pathway two.