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Innovation - Where The Desirable Meets The Possible

Wed, 06/10/2015 - 13:15 -- KevinMcFarthing

One of my favourite definitions of innovation comes from Andrew Hargadonit’s about making the possible desirable and the desirable possible.  It neatly encapsulates supply and demand, implying that it’s something the customer wants and the innovator can deliver.  It’s where problem and solution meet.  Once you have established if a proposition is desirable and possible, the assessment can be made on whether it is viable in the market.

In many companies that have problems with size, silos or both, extremes exist in possibility and desirability.  I’ll demonstrate with some stereotypes.


Company X has just appointed a new marketing manager.  Shelley is on a fast track and is very capable.  She knows she needs to make an impact in innovation, so launches an idea generation initiative.  This results in some genuinely new ideas and some old chestnuts that reappear every time.  Some are labeled as “holy grails” – they hold out the possibility of endless riches but will never be found.  The next step is to test the ideas with customers. 

Before the test happens, Shelley calls Carol, the head of R&D, just to keep her up to speed, as some of Carol’s team took part in the idea generation.  Carol wants to review the ideas so that only those that are technically possible are tested.  Shelley refuses, because she is focused on finding out which ideas will have traction with customers.  They agree to disagree, and Shelley goes ahead.

Meanwhile, Carol and her team have been developing a really interesting technology at the heart of the core business.  It’s a new way of approaching an existing solution, company X has patented it and R&D is really enthusiastic.  It’s been tested a few times with customers, with reasonable results, but nothing spectacular.  R&D believes it’s because marketing haven’t explained the new technology well enough to customers.  Marketing believes it’s because there is insufficient incremental benefit for customers to switch to the new alternative.

At the next management meeting, several R&D funding proposals are on the table.  Shelley wants money to be invested in some of the ideas that have scored really well - including some holy grails/old chestnuts - with customers.  Carol doesn’t believe they are technically feasible and instead wants money to be invested in the new core technology.

The result?  The head of the division criticizes both Shelley and Carol.  The meeting erupts into finger pointing with allegations of incompetent R&D and unrealistic marketing.  One has been too focused on possibility, the other on desirability.  The result is a combination of impossible and undesirable. 

OK I’m exaggerating here – but only a little.  Many of you reading this may have experienced similar situations.

Another of my favourite aphorisms is this – “sales is selling what you have, marketing is having what you can sell”.  In this sense, marketing is not a department; it is the whole enterprise engaging in activities that make sure they have what they can sell.  The marketing department may lead it, but it involves so much more, especially R&D.

The boundaries of the possible and the desirable should always be stretched.  Yes, the marketing teams should focus on desirability first, but only in the context of the possible and potentially possible.  They should also try to see if the possible could become more desirable through fresh insights, new claims and smarter stories.  The R&D team should focus on possibility, but in the context of alignment with desirability.  They should also expand the palette of available technologies, exploring external options through Open Innovation and being creative about new options in a customer context.  

The key to all of this is to have collective views within a team approach to possibility and desirability.  Don’t test the impossible; don’t persist with the undesirable.

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