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The Search for Innovations

Point:  Use roving cross-functional teams to hunt for promising new product and service ideas.

In a world of large organizations and diverse global hotspots for R&D, innovation occurs everywhere.  Companies can tap those innovations through search processes, which may be cheaper and more effective than only using traditional “start from square one” R&D efforts.  The rationale: there may be no need to re-invent the wheel if the wheel already exists somewhere inside (or outside) your organization.

Here’s how multinationals General Mills and Whirlpool approached the search for innovations. General Mills formed two “innovation squads” consisting of six-to-eight employees selected from multiple functions. The squads are tasked with hunting for ideas from inside and outside the organization – one squad focuses on finding ideas internally, the other focuses on looking outside the organization.  The squads present the best ideas they’ve found to division heads. Once a quarter, the squads give their top 10 ideas to the company chairman.

For example, one squad found a patent for a new method of encapsulating calcium. The patent had been donated to a university. The squad converted it into a very successful new line of orange juice with added calcium that doesn’t taste chalky.

Similarly, Whirlpool designates some employees as innovation mentors – “i-mentors” – training them in innovation and tasking them with identifying promising new product ideas from across the organization. Whirlpool has 1000 i-mentors globally.  Most of the individuals self-identified and asked for the training, which consists of a formal training program that creates a common language for innovation and embeds innovation into an organizational competency the way Six Sigma training does. Whirlpool developed “how-to” guides for its innovators, including analysis of who has contact with whom [network analysis].


  • Explicitly designate individuals or teams to look for innovations
  • Provide innovation training to these cross-functional teams
  • Cast a wide net when searching for good ideas
  • Filter, refine, and present the best ideas for funding/implementation decisions


“Unleashing Innovation,” Research-Technology Management,

Mason Carpenter and Sanjyot P. Dunung, “Harnessing the Engine of Global Innovation” in International Business, Flatworld Knowledge, August 2011

Jessie Scanlon, “How Whirlpool Puts New Ideas Through the Wringer,”

Peter Erickson, “Innovating on Innovation” Keynote Presentation at the Front End of Innovation Conference, Boston, MA, May 2009

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Northrop Grumman, Eastman Chemical: Where to Innovate in this Economy

Point:  “Where” innovation comes from can be a place, a time, or a conceptual process.

Story: At Invention Machine’s Power to Innovate user conference, Jim Belfiore, Senior Director of Client Innovation and Practices, posed the question of where to innovate in this economy. Numerous presenters provided varied and surprising answers about where they find innovation and innovation-related opportunities.

First, “where” can be a literal place.  Mark Atkins, CEO of Invention Machine, discussed research on emerging markets such as China, India, Brazil, and other rapidly-developing emerging markets.  He cited data on the rise of innovation awareness and investment in these countries.  For example, a recent survey found that 52% of executives in emerging markets thought innovation was critical versus only 31% in the US and EU.  The same survey showed that more executives in emerging markets are investing in innovation than are their mature-market counterparts (85% vs. 53%).

The implication: companies should scan and analyze emerging markets for companies that might be disruptive competitors or that might become the company’s new suppliers, new manufacturers, or new distributors for addressing emerging market needs.  By answering “where” with emerging market players, companies can find new opportunities for collaboration.

Second, Dr. Charles Volk, Vice President and Chief Technologist at Northrop Grumman Navigation Systems, showed how innovation can be found in the past — “where” can be a point in time.  Volk’s division makes high-performance inertial navigation systems that enable aircraft and missiles to know exactly where they are, how fast they are moving, how they are oriented in space, and which way they are heading.  The devices represent more than 50 years of technological success, as well as some failures. Failures of the past, however, can be resurrected when new technology advances and obviates previous constraints.  The key, however, is to be able to access the prior work a company has done on a project, to avoid reinventing the wheel.  The challenge gets even bigger given that so many Boomers are retiring, taking past knowledge and lessons learned with them.  That’s one reason why Northrop used Invention Machine’s Goldfire tool to systematically capture and index legacy knowledge from disparate sources and formats.  According to senior scientist David Rozelle, for example, “Extensive efforts were put into feeding all HRG [Hemispherical Resonator Gyro] product-line documentation into state-of-the-art-knowledge base tools, including Invention Machine’s Goldfire system, to allow future engineers easy access to this huge amount of information through queries to the database.”

Third, Henry Gonzalez, Technology Fellow at Eastman Chemical Co, provided an external-source “where” example. Eastman,  a global manufacturer of chemicals, plastics and fibers, wanted to find a new application for one of its existing technologies. Eastman used Goldfire’s Innovation Trend Analysis and semantic capabilities to identify and target likely conferences and papers that could point to an answer. The results? A two-day effort using Goldfire yielded results that took an Eastman engineer 6-9 months to do previously. Eastman engineers were originally skeptical that a tool could help them be more innovative, but they were convinced by the results and are now expanding their Goldfire deployment.

Finally, Belfiore challenged people to look beyond their current S-curve of technology or product adoption to the next curve. More specifically, his answer to the question of “where” is to examine where your current constraints are. Then look to that as “where” to innovate before a competitor does. For example, in the energy industry, hydrocarbon production and supply are a challenge, with the constraints of cost, resources and environment impact. Most alternatives to the energy issue target eliminating hydrocarbon fuels by substituting wind or sun. But these next-generation solutions come with new problems, such as replacing the world’s fleet of vehicles and existing energy-delivery infrastructure if liquid hydrocarbons are no longer used. Joule BioTech, however, pinpointed fuel as its innovation place. Specifically, Joule focused on finding a new way to make hydrocarbon fuel that would reduce dependence on foreign oil and eliminate the carbon footprint of fuel. Joule disrupted the way fuel is made. Rather than start with a hole in the ground to reach fossil fuels, Joule created sunlight-driven bioreactors that could grow artificial microbes that produce ethanol and diesel. The microbes require only sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce ethanol and diesel, thus not only lowering the cost of production but also removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  When the fuel and diesel is burned in the car engine, therefore, no new CO2 is released. And, the fuel is used in the combustion engine just like gasoline, requiring no new infrastructure.


  • Think about all the possible “wheres” of innovation.
  • Look at the past for failed innovations that you can resurrect using new developments or to address new needs.
  • Look at new markets and the new players arising in those markets as a new source, new collaborator, or new point of demand for innovation.
  • Look beyond the current S-curve to create the next S-curve before the competition does.

For more information, on Northrop Grumman’s HRG project, see:

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Reverse Innovation: How Designing for Emerging Economies Brings Benefits Back Home

Point: Creating new products & services for developing countries requires radical innovation and opens new opportunities in developed world markets as well

Story: GE Healthcare sells sophisticated medical imaging devices around the world. Historically, they have sold these high-end machines in emerging economies like India. But only 10% of Indian hospitals can afford a $10,000 ECG machine. Reaching the other 90% of the market takes more than simply cutting a few costs. It requires radical innovation and an in-depth understanding of local conditions.

For example, most Indians live in rural areas. That means they don’t have a local hospital to go to. Rather, the machine needs to go to them, and no rural healthcare clinic is going to lug a $10,000 machine into the field even if it could afford the device. Achieving the goal of a lightweight, reliable, simple-to-use ECG machine took radical re-thinking. GE built a device, called the MAC i, that could fit in a shoulder bag, has a built-in replaceable printer, and cost only $500. In addition, because the device would be used in rural locations with scant access to electricity, GE designed a battery that could do 500 ECGs on one charge.  To make it easy to use, GE designed the machine to have only three buttons. Finally, just because the device is inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s dumb.  Because the cost of a copy of software is zero, GE installed professional-level analysis software to aid rural doctors.

With its new MAC i, GE has unlocked a whole new market in developing countries.  Beyond that, GE has also opened up new opportunities back home — and that’s the reverse innovation side of the story.  How? The portable ECG machine with a $500 price tag is ideal for use in ambulances, saving lives of accident victims in rich countries as well.  Cheap, portable, and easy-to-use devices are desirable in any country.

Reverse innovation means designing a product for a developing country and bringing that innovation back home.

  • Make the product extremely low in cost so that it is price-acceptable in developing markets and opens up new sales opportunities in developed markets
  • Start from the ground up with a radical rethinking. (See also the Tata Nano example.)
  • Plan for intermittent electricity
  • Make the product modular to facilitate remote repair
  • Make the product easy to use, like GE’s three-button ECG machine


Vijay Govindarajan, “Reverse Innovation: A New Strategy for Creating the Future” HSM webinar March 18, 2010

Prof. Govindarajan will be speaking more on this topic at the World Business Forum in NYC October 5-6, 2009

India Tech Online

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