Architects and Innovation - Part 1
By Paul Preiss
As architect teams begin to consider their engagement model, they must include their approach to innovation. Unfortunately, though most architects would like to immediately create innovative change in their companies, there are a lot of roadblocks to getting your team's engagement model connected to the ideation process for next generation business models. Many businesses do not formally have an idea/innovation management process at all and in others architects (if they even have titled architects) are considered to be IT order takers and not business drivers. So buyer beware the process of 'getting involved' may actually turn into having to create a cultural change across the entire company instead. Not only that, but their are many types of innovation and your team must anticipate and communicate how and where it is impacting the business while maintaining excellence in its current mission and objectives.
Organizations that do not innovate are doomed to long term failure. Companies in the Fortune 500 are failing quicker and quicker as they are faced with disruption in the business environment. Sometimes this disruption comes from firms that are able to make use of digital (technology) strategy that allows them to create innovative business models that undermine these companies ability to compete. For example, the cell phones and tables have destroyed the PC marketplace and will continue to do so. In addition, they disrupt the traditional internet environment, causing disruptions in everything to retail markets to banking and requiring these organizations are constantly able to adapt to the changing landscape.
Let's start with the innovation itself as it relates change in the organization's products and services.The most common matrix of innovation involves 4 types of innovation along two axis. The axis include how well defined the problem is and how well defined the domain is. For a good overview see http://www.digitaltonto.com/2012/4-types-of-innovation-and-how-to-approach-them/
Basic research, what we would think of in a university setting, involves looking into areas that neither the problem not the domain are well understood. For architects this might include researching new business models facilitated by radically innovative technologies. Each of the different types of innovation demands a differing process and approach. Sustaining innovation, what I have often called incremental innovation, is a radically different concept than disruptive innovation and is much more suited to the average fortune 500 and to the average architect team. Here are some basic approaches for innovation and architects when considering each of the primary innovation types. I've organized these from the least relevant to your daily life to the most relevant (or likely).
Basic Research - when doing research you are exploring the unexplored. This is not researching the best application server for your online store (that is at best sustaining innovation and normally not even that). Most architects are not involved in real research. The ones that are generally work for very large or very well funded product companies. For example, Microsoft and Apple are both doing extremely interesting research in how humans interact with devices and the world around them. They work with and help fund universities around the world in understanding human/device interaction. The average architect team will not participate in these programs except as research subjects, but I highly suggest you be aware of what is going on in the technology research centers as it turns into products extremely quickly and may create a disruptive innovation that impacts your business.
Breakthrough Innovation - Breakthrough innovation is another area that very few of today's architects are involved in, though I would argue that is changing quickly (check back for my post on the role of architects and start-ups). Breakthrough innovation involves the business application of "radical science". Those companies understood the power of the internet, social or other were there to capitalize on breakthroughs. Your team should be deeply aware of applicable science to understand how breakthroughs are going to impact your business domain. For example, will quantum computing drastically change your business space and if so how? Keep in mind if you are truly an innovative team, you may apply these breakthroughs in a way that fundamentally change the business environment.
Disruptive Innovation - Disruptive innovation is becoming more common in all types of business. It involves a significantly cheaper alternative to your product which may not have mature features but has a key differentiation. This is an extremely important area of innovation that you can influence. One of Dell Computer'd business innovations was their just in time supply chain and manufacturing process which allowed them to manage very low inventory levels while maintaining very high order satisfaction results. It also enabled them to accept payment for materials they had not purchased yet. This kind of business model was radical and almost completely enabled by technology that was available to all computer manufacturers. To be sure it was not the only element of Dell's success but it had a lot to do with it. What kind of business are you in and how could technology transform that business so that you were playing in a 'Blue Ocean'? How has your team integrated disruptive thinking into it's day to day practice?
Sustaining Innovation - Oddly, the most common form of innovation that architects deal with is sustaining innovation. This is the kind of incremental innovation that you likely see everyday. It is the innovation that happens from being close to your customer and understanding what they want and why they want it. As architects you should be involved with the business and the customer at some level. You should understand how they get their needs met and how your companies solutions impact that. That is normally enough to get the average architect thinking about innovations that drive customer behavior or success in critical business measurements. Do your orders take 7 days instead of 1 day? How does your customer purchase from you? Is there an easier way? Probably the best example of sustainable innovation I have seen came from my families love for pizza. I loved hand-tossed specialty pizza's from unique pizzeria's and could normally find something my daughter wanted there as well. But along came the order tracking service from one of the major pizza chains. All of a sudden we knew that 'Amy' was rolling out our pizza dough, that 'John' was adding our toppings, and that 'Belinda' was driving it to our front door. This one change was enough for us to constantly order from the chain store even though I didn't like the product as much. Abby and I would make up stories about 'John' and watch the progress roll along. It made ordering pizza fun somehow. That is technology driven sustainable innovation (in the pizza business at least).
Regardless of type your team must begin thinking like business leaders. You must begin the process of understanding where innovation comes from inside of your business and within your business environment. If you don't, I guarantee you your competitors will.
For more thinking on innovation see: