The Long Tail of Innovation

I’ve had a note for months to catch up on reports which quote Pfizer along the lines of “Watch out for the Innovation Killers”.

It’s not new news; see some of the Links at the end or try a Google search. But when I finally got to it properly, I discovered two things. First, it’s even less new news than I thought. The “Innovation Killers” idea goes back several years, and has been covered by Christensen et al (who else?) in Harvard Business Review.

Second, I was alerted to this by a note from Doug Neal of Leading Edge Forum (LEF). And his trigger was (I believe) a presentation from a LEF session, which is very well worth working through. It’s available, open access.

Yes, it does contain the “Innovation Killers” slide. But its primary thesis is much more than this. And it’s compelling for anyone trying to develop successful innovation strategies that depend on more than just serendipity.

Rob Spencer’s main theme, in Falls Church back in April, was that innovation is a “Long Tail” phenomenon. There may be a handful of people who can come up with a lot of worthwhile ideas. But if you can open up to the vast array of individuals in a large organisation (such as a global pharma company) then the potential number of ideas increases enormously even if only (say) 20% of those people contribute only one or two ideas each. If you don’t, you miss out. Big time.

When I started writing this piece, I mistyped the title as “The Log Tail …”; and I almost left it that way, because Rob shows that the metrics of this kind of innovation activity don’t become predictable until you learn to use a log-normal plot instead of our usual mean-and-spread bell curves (such as Six Sigma is based on). A metric like “Average number of ideas per individual” is meaningless. In a telling phrase, Rob categorises it as “not even wrong”. That is, it’s the basis of the analysis that’s way off target, not just the maths.

This Long Tail version of innovation can’t be done without means of reaching out to the wide area community. That doesn’t just mean a wiki; the presentation includes a string of practical and structured techniques, far too many to summarise here.

So, innovators and, even more, innovation facilitators: get hold of this presentation, and some of the materials surrounding it. Read, review, and learn!

• Horses, Carts and Long Tails, Rob Spencer (Pfizer) at LEF Forum, April 2009, PDF
• Making innovation count in uncertain times, In Vivo, 25.1, 1-8 (Jan 2007), PDF
• Innovation Killers: How Financial Tools Destroy Your Capacity to Do New Things, Christensen, C., Kaufman, S.P., &  Shih, W, Harvard Business Review, Jan 2008, pp 98-105. Web link is to summary only; library access required for full text
• or search Google for “innovation killers”


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