Think Big

Getting Radical

The RPI researchers defined a radical innovation as one that incorporates brand-new features, produces at least a five-fold performance improvement over current solutions, or produces at least a five-times cost reduction over current solutions. "It's not just about fiddling with what you have and trying to put in some improvement," Lee says. "It's about starting from scratch."

Examples of radical improvement projects include General Electric's 15-year effort to develop digital X-rays, now bearing fruit with a new device being used by doctors, and Otis Elevator Co.'s even longer attempt to develop an elevator suitable for a mile-high building. There are similar radical innovation programs at General Motors, Polaroid, Analog Devices and Nortel.

Although they studied big-company examples of radical innovation, researchers found that being big has nothing to do with being innovative. Instead, they learned radical innovation works best, in companies of any size, when three conditions are met. First, the process must be sheltered from short-term financial pressures. "You can't watch your radical innovation quarter by quarter," agrees Mark Weiser, chief technologist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the copier giant's California innovation laboratory that is credited with inventing windows-based software interfaces and the technology for the computer mouse.

A radical innovation project must also be conducted in an environment that encourages the free flow of ideas. Innovation-seeking companies can boost intellectual cross-fertilization by doing such things as having their employees read a variety of unrelated publications and holding meetings in odd places like museums or parks, says Grace McGartland, a principal of innovation-creativity business consulting firm GM Consultants in Toronto. "If you don't bring fresh ideas in, how are you going to get fresh ideas out?" asks McGartland.

Finally, the effort must persist in spite of wrong turns and dead ends. In fact, radical innovators would do well to anticipate winding up in a place they never expected.

Ultimately, dedicated pursuit of radical innovation may involve much more than reaching out to new markets if the invention is profound enough. "You may have to be ready to change your whole business," Weiser says.

Above all, the company pursuing radical innovation must be persistent. This type of innovation can take a long time, and early failure isn't necessarily an indication of long-term results. "People tend to stop too soon," says McGartland. "Many groups are right on the edge [of success] but don't go on."

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This article was originally published in the October 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Think Big.

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