What underpins creative and successful innovations?


I am currently writing a book covering a well-trodden path – creativity and innovation – with design as an essential link between these two activities. These are topics that have interested me since joining the Open University in the 1970s and have been the subject of much of my teaching and research since then.
For example, creativity, design, and innovation are at the core of my OU teaching from ‘course units’ on Bicycles: invention and innovation in T263 Design: Processes & Products in the early 1980s to Blocks on Creativity and conceptual design in T264/T204 Design: Principles and Practice and Blocks on Creative design in T211 Design and Designing and T217 Design essentials written in the mid-2000s.
I have always believed in learning from text and video case studies of both successful and failed innovations, from those on fast trains in T302 Innovation: Design, Environment and Strategy, produced with Stephen Potter in the mid-1990s; and on greener washing machines in the T307 Innovation: designing for a sustainable future from the early 2000s to innovation in low carbon buildings in T317 Innovation: Designing for change and vacuum cleaners in TB801 Technology and Innovation Management from 2020.

I put some of these and other case studies together in my previous book, Consumer Product Innovation and Sustainable Design. The evolution and impacts of successful products, Routledge (2016) together with lessons for designers, engineers, and innovators drawn from the case studies.
In my current book, I am attempting to uncover factors that underlie creative and successful innovations ranging from transformational, revolutionary, or landmark innovations, such as Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first powered aircraft, through radical innovations such as James Dyson’s cyclone vacuum cleaner, to everyday creative works such as a piece of craft jewelry or a hand-made birthday card, based on what inventors, designers, engineers, architects, and entrepreneurs, and those who have studied them, have said and written. I am analyzing case studies and examples of inventions, designs, and innovations from a wide range of primary, secondary and tertiary sources including from interviews, audio, and video recordings I have personally conducted with their creators; from books, academic, magazine, and newspaper articles and online material by or about creators and innovators; and by reviewing the literature of other researcher’s attempts to synthesize common elements underlying the processes of creativity and innovation. These various materials show that there are many factors that may underlie the production and introduction of creative and successful innovations, or that can result in failure.

Below is my preliminary list of some of the multiple factors, that I and others have identified, which in various combinations can facilitate creative and successful innovations.
I have edited the list from a longer one in the current draft of the book and invite readers of this blog to add their own and offer comments and feedback to me.

Personal/psychological
• The background/education/personality of a creative individual and/or innovator, if the innovation is mainly the work of an individual, at least to begin with.
• Hard worker/driven personality/determined to succeed. (Elon Musk ‘’If I didn’t need to eat it would give me more time to work’.)
• A repertoire of wide and relevant domain-specific knowledge, skills, previous work, and experience available to the individual, team, or organization.
• Willing to take risks of technical and/or financial failure.
Organizational
• The history/culture/knowledge/management/people of a creative and/or innovative organization if the innovation mainly takes place within an organization.
• Working with others (individuals, teams, organizations).
Contextual
• A creative and innovative environment or fertile ecology of other people, ideas, works, culture, places, institutions, finance, etc.
• Enabling or prerequisite skills, scientific or other knowledge, technologies, materials or components exist and are known to the innovator and can be applied by the innovator or external experts.
• Essential complementary assets (technologies or systems that enable the innovation to be adopted and used) exist and are sufficiently developed.
The creative and innovation process
• Preparation/gestation: a period of the individual, team or organization considering the task or problem, sometimes for many years.
• An initial idea, concept or constraint (e.g. a specific material or site) to start tackling the problem or task.
• Sometimes a ‘primary generator’, clear goal or big idea that drives the idea or solution throughout based on the creator’s or team’s philosophy, preferences, existing ideas, images preferred materials or solutions.
• A phase of saturating the individual, team, or organization with or information about immersion in or researching the task or problem to be addressed.
• Often, a source of inspiration, an external trigger, a flash of insight, lightbulb moment or chance encounter that stimulates a new idea.
• Associative thinking: Adapting existing ideas or solutions, transferring ideas and solutions from different fields, using analogies (e.g. biological), combining ideas or solutions from different fields.
• User-centred design and/or market research to identify user/purchaser wants, demands and needs.
• Developing the idea or concept via sketches, drafts, mock-ups, models, prototypes.
• Attention to details of the proposed solution – technical and aesthetic. Creative design of the sub-systems and components of the whole product.
• Persisting with the development of promising ideas or concepts, returning to earlier stages or abandoning and trying again as necessary. (Edison ‘Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.’).
• Having the necessary time, motivation and ability to raise the funding or other resources to continue the development through to innovation.
The innovation itself
• For innovations that are to be adopted or used by others, an existing or latent need or demand in the market or society.
• For innovations that are to be adopted or used by others, it has one or more unique functions, features or benefits not provided by existing artefacts or systems.
• If consumer facing, the innovation is aesthetically attractive, easy to use, and designed as an integrated whole.
• The innovation is reliable and affordable.
Post-innovation activity
• Continuous improvement in response to problems, user feedback, and competition following the original innovation.
• Building on the innovation with further new products, services, or innovations.
• Learning from unsuccessful, abandoned, and failed innovations, including contributary commercial, competitive and/or technical factors.

As noted above, I welcome your feedback and suggestions for additions to this list.

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