Innovation: Not an Idea Problem, but a Recognition Challenge


Picture Credit: NBC News from Kodak

Innovation fans like to talk about “Blue Skies”, “thinking out of the box” and “brainstorming”, but not David Burkus who was named one of the Top 50 Thinkers by Thinkers50 in 2015. He wrote an excellent HBR article in 2013 that discusses a risk aversion bias many face in corporate settings: “a bias against new and creative ideas when we’re faced with even small amounts of uncertainty.” Dr. Burkus’s concept of a recognition challenge points out that management needs to look to your team internally to identify ideas that may be getting championed but ignored.

Consider some well-known examples from history. Kodak’s research laboratory invented the first digital camera in 1975 but didn’t pursue it. Instead they paid virtually no attention as Sony developed a different prototype and stole the future of digital photography out from underneath them. Xerox developed the first personal computer, but didn’t invest enough in the technology and allowed Steve Jobs and Apple to snatch the opportunity away.

What do you think these inventors felt about the lack of support for their ideas?  Steven Sasson, a 24 year old engineer when he joined Kodak in 1973, as reported by the New York Times, “was given a seemingly unimportant task — to see whether there was any practical use for a charged coupled device (C.C.D.), which had been invented a few years earlier. “Hardly anybody knew I was working on this, because it wasn’t that big of a project,” Mr. Sasson said “It wasn’t secret. It was just a project to keep me from getting into trouble doing something else, I guess.” The final result was a Rube Goldberg device with a lens scavenged from a used Super-8 movie camera; a portable digital cassette recorder; 16 nickel cadmium batteries; an analog/digital converter; and several dozen circuits — all wired together on half a dozen circuit boards.” (see above and here shown by the inventor). So the digital photography revolution was almost killed when Kodak marketing and business executives asked, “why would anyone want to look at their picture on a television set?” Sasson and colleague Gareth Lloyd received U.S. patent 4131919A right after Christmas 1978 for an “Electronic imaging apparatus, preferably an electronic still camera, employs an inexpensive information-recording medium such as audio-grade magnetic tape for “capturing” scene images.” In 1989, Sasson and another colleague Robert Hills created the first single lens reflex (SLR) camera which has been part of the digital photography revolution as detailed in DigiCamHistory here. But Kodak had been leapfrogged a year earlier by Japan’s Fuji Photo and the race was on. Almost five years ago, Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy.


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Citing a 2010 study by Professor Jennifer Mueller called “The Bias Against Creativity”, Burkus suggests one possible solution to this “idea killing” problem is to change the structure ideas have to move through. Instead of using the traditional hierarchy to find and approve ideas, the approval process could be spread across the whole organization.  in 2006, Rite-Solutions set up an “idea market” internally for employees to post an idea and list it as a “stock” on the market, called “Mutual Fun.” Professor Burkus champions the Rite-Solutions IdeaMart:  “If an idea gathers enough support, the project is approved and everyone who supported it is given a share of the profits from the project. In just a few years, the program has already produced huge gains for the company, from small incremental changes to products in whole new industries. In its first year alone, the Mutual Fun accounted for 50 percent of the company’s new business growth. More important than the immediate revenue, the idea market has created a culture where new ideas are recognized and developed throughout the entire company, (yielding) a democratization of recognition (which varies across cultures, of course).”

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