In my past life in corporate America, I was often discouraged by the widespread use of the "funnel model" of innovation. The funnel describes how many initial ideas enter the idea processing engines of a company, which winnows the ideas and projects down to a small stream in a narrow pipeline that releases a few of the rare, lucky winners as new products or services into the market. This model means that most innovation work is misguided effort that results in nothing.
It soon became clear that traditional approaches to innovation are inherently inefficient, especially in consumer products and non-pharmaceutical innovations where there is some degree of predictability of technical success (not necessarily market success). Part of that inefficiency is because inventors in corporations aren't inventing what the market really wants or needs, and aren't part of the feedback loop involving the market. Much of the effect of traditional R&D teams truly is wasted breath, doomed to be winnowed out in the funnel of innovation - but it doesn't have to be that way.
I'd like to share a model of innovation that builds on my experiences in the past, including my years of exposure to the French horn from a talented horn player in our family, my son, Daniel. One of the surprising things I learned early on about the French horn is that the hornist typically places a hand in the bell of the horn - the large open funnel at the end - to shape the final sound that emerges, making sure it is in tune with the environment and fits the rest of the music being played by others. The placement of the hand in the bell - a technique called "handstopping" - can change the pitch as well as the timbre of the music. Handstopping was a key innovation in the development of the horn from the 1700s that allowed the horn to be more than just a special effect, but a true orchestral instrument.
By turning the innovation funnel on its end, we have a "horn of innovation™," not a funnel. The efforts of the innovator, the energy delivered by buzzing lips - the "buzz" of the innovator - is not wasted breath, but directly contributes to the output from the horn. The buzz is transformed by the internal processes and variable paths inside the horn, going from a crude buzz to a melodious tune, but in this process, the hornist - symbolizing the innovator - is involved from beginning to end. The hornist is part of a feedback loop, hearing the notes that are released into the environment, getting immediate feedback and making adjustments with hand and lips to keep things in tune. The hornist has a score, sees the feedback from the director, hears the output into the environment, and has a hands-on approach right to the end. In many industries, it should be this way with innovation as well. Rather than having inventors isolated and cut off from the market and from the downstream development process, inventors should have a hand in the process to the end, receiving rapid feedback in an iterative loop as early market information suggests the need to alter the innovative input to deliver what the market demands.
Keeping inventors in the loop, allowing them to be part of the process of learning from the market, and providing systems that effectively transform their crude input into crafted finished products and services, can make the most of inventor efforts and result in targeted, directed innovation to meet the needs of the market, with every breath contributing to the final output rather than have 95% of the efforts be wasted.
The Horn of Innovation™ is a model of directed innovation with integrated inventor involvement in an iterative feedback loop aimed at rapidly learning from the market and making constant hands-on adjustments to deliver successful, pleasing results.
I will be describing this approach more fully in a book that is coming out next year: Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar, to be published 2009.