How to Accelerate Innovation

Point:  Accelerate innovation by finding an analogous solution from a different industry.

Henry Ford’s assembly line is often touted as a breakthrough innovation. What’s less known is that Ford got the idea by seeing the “disassembly line” process of butchering hogs at the Philip Armour meatpacking company in Chicago. Similar techniques were also already being used by Campbell’s to automate canned food production.

Adopting ideas from other industries and applying them to your own industry is a powerful and proven source of innovation. But what if you don’t know which industry to examine, or where to look for that potentially breakthrough idea? Solutions may arrive serendipitously as you visit companies and read widely, but how do you accelerate the process and make it systematic?

One exciting solution I came across was described by Jim Todhunter, CTO of Invention Machine at the Open Innovation Summit last month. Invention Machine’s Goldfire software uses semantic technology to access a vast collection of scientific principles, patents, articles and Deep Web technical websites (meaning you can’t find them via standard search engines like Google). Simply put, Goldfire automates searching for analogous solutions in different industries.  I talked with Todhunter to learn more about how Goldfire, an innovation platform, can help a company innovate systematically.

Todhunter described how a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures used adjacencies to remove lead from their plumbing fixtures.  Companies have long known the dangers of lead and have substituted copper pipes for lead ones and stopped using lead-based solders for plumbing. But most of us don’t realize that fixtures like brass faucets also contain lead in the brass alloys. The reason faucets contain lead is because lead makes the brass machinable. A couple percent of lead mixed into the copper and zinc of the brass makes it easier to mill attractive surfaces, drill clean holes, and create smooth pipe threads on the brass.  In short, the lead helps a faucet manufacturer create attractive, high-quality faucets. But over time, some of the lead in the brass leaches out into the water that flows through the faucet, which poses some health risks.

The faucet maker realized they needed help to solve the problem and turned to Invention Machine’s Goldfire software to find feasible external innovations. “Goldfire helped them in two ways,” Todhunter said, “in terms of what are called adjacencies and proof points.”

Adjacencies involve finding potentially analogous innovations found in other industries. For example, faucet makers aren’t the only companies worried about producing quality products from hard-to-machine materials.  “On the adjacency side, when the company started to examine the problem with Goldfire, they were able to discover that there were technologies and methods used in other industries that could obviate the need for lead in brass,” Todhunter said. In particular, the manufacturer discovered that woodworkers have clever techniques for milling wood.  These techniques could be adapted to machining lead-free brass.

The second help to accelerate the innovative solution is called proof points — tangible examples that prove a solution is commercially feasible.  In terms of proof points (i.e., “are there ways to do this?”), the manufacturer was able to discover a very clear proof point through Goldfire: someone had already discovered a way to make millable lead-free brass.  “The client didn’t even have to go invent this material — they were able to find a supplier,” Todhunter said.  “As a result, the faucet maker accelerated their time to market for delivery on this kind of concept tremendously because this discovery created a partnering opportunity.”


  • Clearly define the problem at hand (e.g., lead-free brass AND attractive, high-quality machined features)
  • Survey adjacent industries or applications for ideas that overcome the problem (e.g., tricks for milling a hard-to-mill material)
  • Survey external innovations and suppliers for proof points (e.g., a commercially available, lead-free brass alloy that is machinable)
  • Combine externally-found adjacencies and proof points (i.e., use the best adjacent methods on the best proof point solutions)

For Additional Information:

Computer power yields radical ideas, by Stuart F. Brown, Fortune

Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way Your Company Innovates by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson

7 Comments »How-to, Innovation, Software tool

7 Responses to “How to Accelerate Innovation”

  1. Gail Storey Jan 19th 2010 at 02:21 pm 1

    Excellent points to reflect on here. Although this isn’t specifically my field, your gifts for both analysis and synthesis can be brought to bear in a variety of applications. I’ve subscribed to your blog so I won’t miss any posts!

  2. Andrea Meyer Jan 19th 2010 at 02:34 pm 2

    Thanks for your kind words, Gail!

  3. Graham Horton Jan 20th 2010 at 05:35 pm 3


    In addition to being a problem-solving method in the manner you describe in your article, analogies also offer one of the strongest ideation methods. Interestingly, in ideation, the best results are often obtained not by looking at adjacent industries or applications but at distant ones.

    For example, we were asked by an automobile manufacturer here in Germany to help them find ways to improve efficiency. We asked them questions such as:
    – “How would a four-star general improve your efficiency?”
    – “How would the fire service improve your efficiency?”
    – “How would FedEx improve your efficiency?”
    We found that looking at an unexpected and very different field helped the workshop participants to see their familiar environment in fresh ways.

  4. Andrea Meyer Jan 20th 2010 at 06:42 pm 4

    Excellent advice, Graham, thank you for sharing your experience!

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  7. MarkSpizer May 3rd 2010 at 07:57 am 7

    great post as usual!