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5 Key Factors For Innovation Success

Wedgetail Console
The RAAF’s E-7 Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft embodies many of the key principles of successful innovation. Photo: Defence

Here’s a thought for the innovators out there – what are the key factors that discriminate between success and failure? Project Alpha Plus might be able to help.

Before I list five factors that research has shown really matter, consider for a moment how long humans have been studying the challenge of innovating successfully. Some of the recent literature simply validates the research that was undertaken decades ago by pioneers in this field.

For example, have you ever heard of Project SAPPHO? No, I thought not.

SAPPHO stands for ‘Scientific Activity Predictor from Patterns with Heuristic Origins’ – The project was undertaken in the UK during the early 1970s by Professor Roy Rothwell of the University of Sussex. It compared 43 successful innovators with 43 unsuccessful ones in the industrial chemical and scientific instruments markets. A total of 122 variables were measured and the results were pretty conclusive.

It remains one of the benchmarks against which the more recent literature on industrial innovation is measured.

Project SAPPHO identified five key underlying factors associated with innovation success – in descending order of importance they are:

  1. Successful innovators were seen to have a much better understanding of user needs
  2. Successful innovators pay more attention to marketing and publicity
  3. Successful innovators perform their development work more efficiently than failures, but not necessarily more quickly
  4. Successful innovators make more use of outside technology and scientific advice, not necessarily in general but in the specific area concerned
  5. The responsible individuals (carefully defined) in the successful attempts are usually more senior and have greater authority than their counterparts who fail.

OK, so… industrial chemicals and scientific instruments? What have they to do with the defence industry?

Simple: they are both high-technology industrial markets – and one thing we do know is that defence is a high-technology industrial market. In fact, the defence industry isn’t so different from other high-technology industry sectors. If you want to be a successful defence manufacturer you could do a lot worse than model yourself on a successful manufacturer of medical equipment, or advanced machine tools, or industrial chemicals, or scientific instruments.

The attributes that make companies in these sectors successful are shared by successful defence companies, too. The Industrial Chemicals sector has really high capital investment needs and moves more deliberately – a bit like building warships or combat aircraft. Meanwhile, the Scientific Instruments sector moves more quickly and rewards agility and smart technology – a bit like the rapid development cycle for sensors or processors. To over-simplify, think defence prime contractors and defence SMEs. They inhabit the same industrial eco-system, so these five factors apply to both.

But what do the five factors actually mean?

  • User Needs – that ought to speak for itself: innovators need to invest in understanding their customers and the context in which they operate. Innovators need to be able to identify user needs based on both existing pain points and future potential opportunities.
  • Marketing and Publicity – if you’ve got a good product or service, tell your customers about it. But you must also manage their expectations – make sure you can deliver on your promise or your reputation will take a big hit.
  • Development work – it takes all car manufacturers about the same length of time to produce an all-new design, doesn’t it? But some get it absolutely right, while others don’t. Learn how to manage your development process effectively. Don’t try to cut corners.
  • Outside Technology – If you think you know it all and can do it all, then you’re dead wrong. Look for the experts who can do what you can’t, or who can do important things better than you – for example, AI or cyber security or additive manufacturing or cubesat design – and listen to them. Work with them. You’ll learn stuff to your advantage and design a better, more successful product or service.
  • Leadership – it’s not just about having good people in charge – and contrary to the myth, there are plenty of good people around. But they need the experience, seniority and freedom to make the project a success. You need to grow these people carefully, or hire carefully, and provide a corporate environment in which they can be effective and succeed.

You could write a book about all this, and Roy Rothwell did. Google him. And don’t just read his stuff – there’s a lot of good advice out there on innovation.

Some of it comes from us – we’re the team at Project Alpha Plus. We’ve done that reading already and we want to share what we know.

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