When people think of the most innovative companies, they think of ones that are coming out with new and amazing technology. The push for self-driving cars or augmented reality glasses can be a more compelling story than, say, a smaller iPad.
But one thing highlighted in the Booz & Co. Innovation 1000 study and our conversation with co-author Barry Jaruzelski is that pushing technological boundaries is just one of the three successful paths to innovation. Each is as difficult to execute, requires as much innovation in the research and development (R&D) process, and has as much potential as the next.
Here's how Jaruzelski describes them:
1. Need seekers (think Apple)
"...these are companies who's innovation strategy is essentially around knowing customers better than themselves, identifying unarticulated needs, and then being the first to market with a product that addresses those needs. It's very heavily reliant on direct customer observation rather than market research. It is people telling you what they want, watching customers, seeing how they interact with the product or competitors' products, and observing opportunities in the problems that they're having."
Apple didn't invent the touch screen. But it's made vastly more money than anyone else on it by focusing on how people use it, and being better than anyone else at delivering that experience.
2. Market readers (think Samsung)
"...a market reader is sort of the classic fast follower, it doesn't mean they ignore their customers, but they're very attuned to what competitors are doing and what other people are bringing to market first and observing what seems to be gaining traction, then very rapidly coming up with their own version of that innovation. You can think about the companies set up as almost a massive coiled spring to basically pop out and copy an idea, not reverse engineer it necessarily, but, looking at innovation and coming up with their own version very rapidly to get their share. It's very much rooted in competitive intelligence, classic market research kinds of activities in terms of the front end."
Samsung wouldn't have jumped five spots in three years on the ranking of the world's most innovative companies delivering bad copies of an iPhone. It creates compelling new versions of products, times them well, and adds to them. Pulling that off is an innovative and difficult strategy in its own right.
3. Tech drivers (think Google)
"The third category is what we call technology drivers. This is much more the traditional technology push kind of model, where the pendulum hasn't swung completely away from customers and markets, but it's much more oriented towards leveraging the technology base, seeing what you can push out, seeing where there might be applications for the technology."
This is the model that's traditionally defined innovation, but being the first to come up with something and the best at making money off of it are very different.
Every company listed here is successful and approaches R&D in a completely different way. The narrative that calls only the last group innovative may be appealing, but it's not what investors or R&D executives care about.