The 4 Types of Innovation and the Problems They Solve
“One of the best innovation stories I’ve ever heard came to me from a senior executive at a leading tech firm. Apparently, his company had won a million-dollar contract to design a sensor that could detect pollutants at very small concentrations underwater. It was an unusually complex problem, so the firm set up a team of crack microchip designers, and they started putting their heads together.
About 45 minutes into their first working session, the marine biologist assigned to their team walked in with a bag of clams and set them on the table. Seeing the confused looks of the chip designers, he explained that clams can detect pollutants at just a few parts per million, and when that happens, they open their shells.
As it turned out, they didn’t really need a fancy chip to detect pollutants — just a simple one that could alert the system to clams opening their shells. ‘They saved $999,000 and ate the clams for dinner,’ the executive told me.
That, in essence, is the value of open innovation. When you have a really tough problem, it often helps to expand skill domains beyond specialists in a single field. Many believe it is just these kinds of unlikely combinations that are key to coming up with breakthroughs. In fact, a study analyzing 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work tended to be mostly rooted within a traditional field, with just a smidgen of insight taken from some unconventional place.
But what if the task had been simply to make a chip that was 30% more efficient? In that case, a marine biologist dropping clams on the table would have been nothing more than a distraction”