Being a successful formulator involves learning how to innovate. Innovation is the life blood of the personal care industry and probably one of the most misunderstood concepts, often confused with the process of invention.
Innovations are new formulations, business models, packages, systems, and/or marketing insights that lead to consumer-preferred, commercially successful products or services. An innovation is normally a technology that creates a competitive advantage because of lower cost, consumer convenience, or superior product performance. The difference between innovations and inventions are that innovations are commercially successful and make money. Most issued patents, for example, are never utilized commercially.
Breakthrough vs Incremental Innovation
There are two basic types of innovation; breakthrough and incremental, which normally involve product optimization, cost reduction, or productivity improvements. Incremental innovation involves optimizing existing technology, while breakthrough innovation is about developing new technology platforms.
All individuals are capable of incremental innovation but few have the ability to be breakthrough or serial innovators. It is estimated that over 80 percent of business results are produced by less than 5 percent of individuals in a company and many of these individuals are serial innovators.
The process of innovation is like spontaneous combustion and can only happen if all of the correct elements are present. The key elements are:
- Oxygen, or having a critical mass of knowledge
- Fuel, or exhibiting the right behaviors like leadership, passion, curiosity, and persistence
- Heat, or exhibiting opportunistic behavior
Fundamental to being a successful innovator is to become a technical master. Technical mastery is developed by working in the lab and is the sum of empirical or practical knowledge and extrinsic knowledge gained from other activities. These include having a good current awareness program, collaborating with experts, suppliers, and developing strong internal/external networks.
A good current awareness program consists of routinely monitoring competitive products, patents, and technical journals.
- Innovation just happens by luck. Someone once asked Thomas Edison whether he was lucky in creating many of his innovations. He replied that the harder he worked, the luckier he seemed to get. My philosophy is that you can’t depend on luck as a strategy.
- We’ll set aside time to innovate (“Friday afternoon syndrome”): I have never seen this approach work.
- Breakthrough innovation can be programmed or put on a timeline.
- I don’t have the time to innovate. Passionate people always find the time to innovate.
- Teams can create breakthrough technology. All of the great discoveries of mankind have come from individuals, not teams. Teams are needed to execute or commercialize breakthrough technologies. Team dynamics normally result in consensus opinions which tend to suppress creativity.
Traits of Great Innovators
Exhibiting passion, leadership, persistence, and curiosity are critical in being able to successfully challenge paradigms in spite of resistance and push back from experts. I believe that being passionate about your work is probably the most critical trait an innovator can have.
The reality is that over 70 percent of workers questioned would rather have a different career if given the chance than the one they currently have. Passionate people work hard because they have fun and never stop thinking about work. Passion gives their lives focus and is a major source of competitive advantage versus their peers. It is also passion that enables great innovators to have a “can do” persistent attitude and not accept failure as an option.
Leadership is about creating a vision of the future or what’s possible and is often confused with management skills. Management is about developing the systems to execute the vision and unfortunately most companies are over managed and under led. Leadership skills are important because breakthrough innovation often involves embracing risk and being a champion of change. Rarely are big ideas readily adopted by an organization and it often takes leadership skills for them to get any traction.
The great French scientist Louis Pasteur once said, “chance favors only the prepared mind.” Another common trait of great innovators is curiosity and an endless desire to learn and understand why they are observing the results they see. Many great innovations have been through serendipity or accidental discoveries. Many of the top technical innovations I have developed over my career have occurred from experiments that produced unexpected data, which I was inspired to continue researching.
A study of Nobel laureates concluded that the key traits contributing to their successes were passion, persistence, and curiosity. An analysis of their successes also demonstrated that many of their discoveries involved challenging current paradigms. A paradigm is a currently held belief or way of doing something. Breakthrough innovations often result from new technologies that challenge paradigms.
Great innovators have open minds that are receptive to new ideas regardless of how controversial they are. They also are very good at connecting dots and reapplying technology from seemingly unrelated areas (innovation by analogy).
What traits or behaviors have led to some of your greatest innovations? Share your experience with a comment below.
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