Over 50% of executives feel that innovation programs cost too much, take too long, and have unpredictable return on investment. In our recent Harper Report article, The Keys to Unlocking Sustainable Innovation, we observe that innovation process can be powerfully enhanced by letting a focus on desired outcomes define the technical solution, as opposed to searching for an application of a fascinating technology. This lesson is brought home to me once again by two recently reported examples of innovation that share an outcome-focused orientation, although on the surface they come from vastly different worlds.
The first example comes from PepsiCo food scientists who are applying high technology to the problem of reducing sodium levels in snack foods without reducing their tastiness. Growing pressure from multiple directions to reduce sodium content in processed foods provides a powerful impetus for the parent of Frito-Lay snack products to innovate in this direction. At the same time, the spectres of many less-than-successful “low-salt” products provide a potent reminder that solving the problem while maintaining a high level of consumer acceptance is money in the bank. According to The Wall Street Journal (PepsiCo Develops ‘Designer Salt’ to Chip Away at Sodium Intake), the researchers have been making admirable progress through highly technical tweaking of the size, shape, and composition of the salt particles they used to coat their products.
An important lesson from this example is that the more one can define a task in advance of trying to create solutions, the more focused and productive innovation effort becomes. In some ways, the dynamic tension of conflicting needs (“more taste/less salty”) combined with a compelling business need any knowledge of what hasn’t worked in the past provides a strong framework for selecting and testing paths to success.
While it’s tempting to say “breakthrough innovation is easy for huge companies with really deep pockets and tons of resources,” it’s clear that very significant advances can also be made by very small organizations when they carefully define multiple factors of success for the solution they are seeking to create.
A case in point for this is the fascinating work being done by the Singapore-based startup Agro Genesis which is focused on the goal of increasing the efficiency of fertilizer while at the same time decreasing pollution from fertilizer runoff. As described in the VietNews story, Going green tech for a bigger, better yield, the small start-up obtained a grant to fund in-house research to answer the focused question of “how can we decrease the solubility of fertilizers and still make their nutrients available to plants? In this case, the focus question led them to develop nano-sized fertilizer particles which do not dissolve in water yet can be readily taken up by plants.
It’s very interesting to reflect on the fact that in spite of enormous differences in resources and scale, the two companies have both made significant progress in creating solutions that are at least partially defined by a paradox of conflicting needs. It’s also clear that defining a clear need as well as possible and then seeking technically possible solutions can accelerate a sustainable innovation process, thus once again proving that necessity is the mother of invention. It seems that we all could benefit from listening more closely to Mother.