Setting the Context for Innovation

August 13, 2018

Most people believe that innovation begins when someone has an idea.  For decades we’ve been led to believe that the process of innovation begins when someone conceives of a better way to do something or solves a previously intractable problem.  What this “begins with an idea” theory neglects to consider is that something – some challenge, some opportunity or some future state – was the impetus for the idea. lightbulb

Overlooking or ignoring the context that lit the spark for the idea is to miss perhaps the most important aspect of innovation.  Very few ideas originate from the “whole cloth”.  Rather, most are in response to some strategy, anticipated future or need that the innovator is aware of.  

If you’ll accept that this hypothesis is true, then it has implications for how your teams conduct innovation work.  Ideas are important, but they are more important when they solve a specific strategic need or address an anticipated future opportunity, and in doing either of these align with or shape strategy.  People will regularly and frequently come up with great ideas that don’t achieve the goals above, and if innovators lack a framework to evaluate context, then any idea seems like a good idea.

The prerequisite for innovation success

Setting the appropriate context innovation and ideas is a prerequisite to innovation success.  As you’ve probably already guessed from how I’ve framed the discussion so far, there are at least three important and potentially interlocking perspectives that should shape what innovation is attempted and which ideas are prioritized.  While some spontaneous and serendipitous innovation can be valuable, given the limited resources assigned to innovation activities and outcomes, every activity should be focused on top priorities and the right context. 

Let’s examine the three drivers of innovation context and think about how they should shape an innovation activity.

Corporate strategy

A well-conceived and well-communicated strategy sets the goals for the business and should signal what activities, investments and outcomes are valued, and, conversely, which activities and investments aren’t encouraged.  If strategy is uncertain or unclear, many innovation activities can be conducted that result in ideas that don’t align to strategic goals, wasting valuable time and resources, and frustrating nascent innovators.

Anticipated future

Since most ideas won’t result in products or services for months and in most cases years, understanding how the future will unfold, and what new opportunities, new markets and new customer segments will emerge is invaluable.  Innovating based on current market conditions, knowing that the markets are changing and evolving, is aiming behind the target.  Innovators need to think clearly about where markets, technologies and customers are moving, and aim ahead of the shift.

Unmet market or customer need

This factor assumes a market pull approach to innovation, trying to understand and fulfill unmet customer needs, rather than build and push new technology.  Customers and prospects are more than willing to tell you want they want, and with some good discovery you can find out what they lack and what they are willing to pay for.  Finding an unmet need that you can fulfill, and customers want to address is the best possible convergence.

What’s the relationship between these three?

As you might have guessed, these three drivers are mutually dependent, but there is a hierarchy.  Strategy should govern the markets, futures, products and services that are under consideration.  One of the first questions innovators should ask is: how does this idea align to our corporate/product/group strategy?

Then, anticipated futures and unmet needs are a second option, and are often inter-related.  If we think about how the future will unfold, we can define emerging markets, segments, opportunities and needs.  So doing good future spotting may introduce you to new needs.  On the other hand, considering unmet needs that customers have now may cause innovators to think about how those needs will be fulfilled in the present and in the future, or if alternative solutions or substitutes will enter the market.

When context matters

Whether it’s strategy, futures or needs, innovators need to set the appropriate context for their work.  Projects that are focused on more incremental change (small change to existing products) can do less of this, because an existing product should already be aligned to strategy and should be (hopefully) serving an existing customer need.  Projects that are focused on more disruptive change or will take longer to realize as a product or service need more context setting.

Every innovation activity should start with evaluating the context – some projects or activities simply need more context definition than others.  It is vital to be intentional and overt about the context in every activity. If you are not, you risk making assumptions about the context or beginning an activity without considering the context, and this will inevitably lead to discord as each individual sets their own context.

How we can help

After decades of leading innovation projects and programs, we know how to set the appropriate context for projects.  Talk to us about how we link innovation to strategy, how we evaluate potential futures and emerging opportunities and how we help identify unmet customer needs to set the right context for any innovation effort.

About the Author 

Jeffrey Phillips focuses on the front end of innovation, specifically trend spotting and scenario planning, customer insight research, idea generation and open innovation. He also has experience in linking innovation to corporate strategy, developing a culture of innovation and in innovation training. Jeffrey leads our thought leadership programs and writes regularly in several blogs, on LinkedIn, and for He is the author of four books (OutManeuverRelentless Innovation20 Mistakes Innovators Make and Make Us More Innovative). He received an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and a B.S. in Engineering from the University of Virginia.

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