More-of-the-Same or a Breaktrough Innovation?



In  a recent post What’s (not) an Innovation? we mentioned that an innovation consists of a new combination of

  • a function – the innovation has the purpose of satisfying a need
  • a principle – there is a mechanism or idea how to deliver that function
  • a market – the innovation has a value that can be traded.

But still remains the question:

  • When is an innovation really breaking patterns more than other innovations?
  • When is an innovation incremental?
  • When radical?
  • When is a technical solution just more-of-the-same routine engineering?
  • What is the difference with a scientific invention?
  • When is it patentable?

Valeri Souchkov presented a new classification scheme for solutions or inventions, based on the original classification by Genrich Altshuller.

world-conference-triz-future-2008-57-november-2008-university-of-twente-enschede-the-netherlands-5-638Principles (scientific discoveries) cannot be patented. The levels of inventions 2 to 4 are patentable. So, a new combination of a principle with a function and a market can patented, regardless the fact that the new combination of principle and function in another market already exists. Below you will find 4 examples of patentable solutions, based on the same principle and the same function, but with different applications. That is to say: fulfilling different needs and as such, serving different markets.

Principle: quickly increasing/decreasing pressure, the Function that is used is to remove things; 

Applications (market):

  1.  remove seeds from peppers
  2.  remove shells of cedar nuts
  3.  remove sunflower seeds
  4.  remove dust
  5. splitting imperfect crystals




Actually, in the examples above we see here concept extraction at work, or in other words “How to Search for (Patentable) Ideas”:

  1. Look for the concept behind an idea (concept= a function and a principle or mechanism)
  2. Apply the concept to other areas (product/market combinations)



What’s (not) an Innovation?


Nowadays, innovation is very in fashion. As a person, you should be innovative (creative?). A product should be innovative to tempt you to buy it (why?). Research should be dedicated to innovations (instead of discoveries?). Or even worse, boards of directors feel compelled to proclaim a “year of innovation” or ask their employees for vibrant new ideas. . . But for what?

vibrant new ideas

But what is innovative, what is an innovation?

Fifteen innovation experts gave their definitions of innovation:  Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and customer.

In our rather humourous Thinkibility nibble “Innovations that Complicate Things”, we suggested that some innovations seems to make things more complex, inconvenient, more costly or reduce value. Since then, we have seen tonnes of examples of so called innovations that actually reduces the quality of life. (P.S. Insert the last phrase into a search engine and you will get only examples of innovations that create value for people what illustrates the unconscious assumption that innovation is always good).

The definition contains four characteristics:

  1. An idea
  2. A challenge
  3. Value for the company
  4. Value for the customer

What is an idea? 

Apart from philosophical speculations – where ideas are usually seen as mental representational images of some object – ideas are in our opinion a result of breaking standard thinking patterns. A thinking pattern consists of a fixed entry point (definition of a situation) and a set of assumptions (things taken for granted).  Ideas that really break existing thinking patterns are often called disruptive, game-changing, breakthrough, blue ocean, out-of-the-box or even a new idea. Examples of this can be found in  “What Big Data, What Information Dominance?”.

Many creative thinking techniques produce hundreds of ideas, but what’s a good idea? To explore this topic we wrote the posts: “What is a Really Good Idea?” and “Thinking outside the Sea Map”.

It takes time and effort to transform an idea into an innovation. That is why a distinction is made between the stages of idea generation, innovation development – making the idea practical, prototyping it, calculating the business case, setting up production, pre-marketing- and implementation. Each of the stages requires different organisation, cultures, project management tools.


A challenge

An idea – to be practical- must satisfy a need. That might be:

  • a problem:  a gap between an existing situation and the desired situation
  • an improvement
  • an opportunity


Seven triggers or sources for innovation are mentioned by Peter Drucker:innovation_sources

The usefulness of this overview of sources and triggers for innovation is not in the summary or description. You can actively check your product or service against a trigger: an occasion or even a necessity to innovate?

To read more about what the main triggers are that push people to innovate in the technical area, look here for an interesting article by Valeri Souchkov.

The biggest problem, however, remains the tendency to ignore challenges because it is unknowingly assumed that they are impossible. In “The Thinking Habits of Steve Jobs” we wrote: Jobs did not settle for less than more than best. He simply ignored practical objections. That drove his designers to extraordinary, hitherto considered impossible performance. Moreover, the ability to ignore generally accepted impossibilities was the main criterion to select employees.


Challenge implies that there is a call to someone to participate in a competitive situation or fight to decide who is superior in terms of ability or strength, or that a task or situation is waiting that tests someone’s abilities. This is rather passive, but challenges can also be created deliberately: Create Opportunities. 

Value for the company and value for the customer

Some posts that explore the concept of Value are:

In general, values are not coming by itself, they should be designed.


Can you design something so that people stay politically engaged? How would you design a fabric that is made out of waste? What if it was possible to design a spot where people feel safe? Or a game that provides people suffering from Alzheimer game with a channel of communication? (To our post about New Brave Design Thinking Approach)

What is at heart of design when you design a hospital or health care systems? (To our post Empathy and Design Thinking)

In summary

In other words, we could say that an innovation consists of a new combination of

  • a function – the innovation has the purpose of satisfying a need
  • a principle – there is a mechanism or idea how to deliver that function
  • a market – the innovation has a value that can be traded.

But still remains the question: “When is an innovation really breaking patterns more than other innovations?. When is an innovation incremental? When radical? When is a technical solution just more-of-the-same routine engineering? What is the difference with a scientific invention? When is it patentable?



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What Big Data, what information dominance?


A new adage is blowing around in the world of innovation. According to Wikipedia, The term “big data” often refers simply to the use of predictive analytics, user behavior analytics, or certain other advanced data analytics methods that extract value from data, and seldom to a particular size of data set. Analysis of data sets can find new correlations to “spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on”.
It is reminiscent of an early US Navy doctrine, as a codification of beliefs or a body of teachings or instructions, taught principles or positions, as the essence of teachings in a given branch of knowledge or belief system. As such, it is a thinking pattern, in which is stated that “information superiority permits the conduct of operations without effective opposition”.

However, in an electronic war game back in 2002 one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five out of six amphibious ships were sent to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in the span of just one hour, resulting in the virtual death of over 20.000 US service personnel.

It was the result of an asymmetric strategy by the opponent forces.

Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, adopted an asymmetric strategy, in particular, using old methods to evade Blue’s sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World-War-II-style light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications.
Red received an ultimatum from Blue, essentially a surrender document, demanding a response within 24 hours. Thus warned of Blue’s approach, Red used a fleet of small boats to determine the position of Blue’s fleet by the second day of the exercise. In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces’ electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships (Wikipedia)It is the same kind of bold thinking we noticed in our blog Thinking outside the SeaMap:  “doing different things” or “escaping the temptation to do more-of-the-same but only better”.


Military strategists distinguish between symmetric and asymmetric warfare. Symmetric warfare is characterized by standing armies that follows more or less the same tactics and organized in the same way. Their standard mode of operation can be traced back to Napoleonic Warfare.

Guerrilla warfare is an escape from fighting according to the rules imposed by the often far more powerful opponent. Therefore, this strategy is often applied by less powerful opponents. The most famous form is guerrilla warfare, next to terrorism.

Asymmetric competitor strategies could be an effective approach in business. Basically, it is not playing the game similar to the other companies, that is selling and marketing the same products as competitors but cheaper and better. It is about disruptive innovation, changing the rules in the market, by delivering a complete different product than you competitor does. It is all about gaining competitive advantage by creating an unique niche in the market. Playing another race at a different circuit.

There is much more to say about the embarrassing destruction of the mighty US Navy, as the over reliance on technological superiority and information dominance. It’s all about big organizations and the neglect of intuition about the intentions and capabilities of the competitor.


There is much more to say about the embarrassing destruction of the mighty US Navy, as the over reliance on technological superiority and information dominance. Also, the neglect of intuition about the intentions and capabilities of the enemy.

Disclaimer: Now you have heard  about the advantage of disruptive innovation or step-out innovation and decide that your organization should do “some of that.” But most organizations are designed to do something else very well. Namely, what they are already doing. You may have a brilliant vision, you may have identified the next great idea, but organizational routines, standard Key Performance Indicators and existing organizational structures will prevent proper execution: The company will will continue to do what they are already doing succesfully: ” a tiny bit better and a tiny bit cheaper?” See “Why Big Companies Can’t Innovate” by Maxell Wessel.

See also the video: Disruptive Innovation Explained by Clay Christensen.

Thinking outside the Sea Map


In 17th and 18th centuries England, France, and Spain contested the Dutch domination of world trade and the control over the seas and trade routes. After initial English successes, the war ended in a decisive Dutch victory.

In 1667 Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter sailed up to the river Thames and attacked the British Royal navy in her home base and towed away the Royal Charles, pride and flagship of the English fleet to display it as a tourist attraction in Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands. It was one of the worst defeats in the Royal Navy’s history, comparable with that of the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Till then, both navies had tried to fight each other at the open seas. Numbers of war ships, range and caliber of the guns and coordinated maneuvering skills were key success factors. However, de Ruyter did something totally different, he sailed up to Chatham and surprised the resting British fleet there.  That way he outperformed the British navy by changing the rules of the game.


This kind of thinking is the same you should apply when you want to reach dramatic cost reductions, come up with a radical new concept for an existing product or creating a breakthrough innovation. In those cases more-of-the-same thinking will not provide for a game change in the market. Patterns of standard thinking should be broken in order to get competitive advantage.

Edward de Bono, de inventor of lateral thinking, called it Sur/petition: creating value monopolies when everyone else is merely competiting.


However, it is not simple to come up with disruptive ideas. And also, to convince your board and your crew.

When the secret instructions were opened on June 7 there was a lot of protest. It was noted that most officers do did their best to find objections, but not to come up with solutions.

See also: Creative Execution: What Great Leaders Do to Unleash Bold Thinking and Innovation or watch this video 2′ 23”

The Charm of Imperfection


In an earlier post about focus, we stressed the importance of paying attention to the focus of the thinking. Taking a problem or challenge unquestioned as it exposes itself may lead to brilliant solutions for the wrong problem. It is therefore required to pay substantial time and effort to (re)define the focus of the thinking.

The problem of attention is best illustrated by the figure-ground phenomenon:  it is known as identifying a figure from the background. For example, you see words on a printed paper as the “figure” and the white sheet as the “background”. However, it is possible to define the white sheet as the “figure”and the “background” as the printed words. Some examples of figure–ground perception shift are:

Figure–ground perception can be expanded from visual perception to include abstract (i.e. non-visual) concepts such as melody/harmony, subject/background, and positive/negative space. The concept of figure and ground fully depends on the observer and not on the item itself.

In art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space occasionally is used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image. It is called Negative Space. The Japanese word “Ma” is sometimes used for this concept, for example, in garden design.

With respect to presented information we called this phenomenon “Left Out” and “Cassandra information“: What is not there?

Left Out

What is not mentioned in the report, intentionally or unconsciously?

We will take the figure-ground reversal a little bit further. Normally, we strive for perfection– broadly, a state of completeness and flawlessness. We value strength, beauty, completeness, velocity, winning etc. Let’s shift focus to the negative face. What is the beauty of imperfection? Amazingly, there is no such page in Wikipedia neither in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ripping or distressing of jeans, though also arising naturally as a result of wear and tear, is sometimes deliberately performed by suppliers – with distressed clothing sometimes selling for more than a non-distressed pair. For example, Pucci sold “embellished mid-rise boyfriend jeans” for $860 USD. In other times it would be a sign of poverty.

The Golden Raspberry Awards is an award ceremony in recognition of the worst in a film. Most winners do not attend the ceremony to collect their awards.  Notable exceptions include Tom Green (Worst Actor/Worst Director), Halle Berry and Sandra  Bullock (Worst Actress), Michael Ferris, Joe Eszterhas (Worst Screenplay), and Paul Verhoeven (Worst Director)

“The Bad Hemingway Contest” is an annual writing competition that has been held for nearly thirty years, the contest pays mock homage to Ernest Hemingway by encouraging authors to submit a ‘really good page of really bad Hemingway’. Also to mention the “Hemmingway Look-alike Society”, a bunch of “portly gray-bearded old men.”: not being unique is the pursue, but striving for the likeness of someone else is worth pursuing.


It is all about focus shift

It is all about perception shift. A shift from looking for perfection to valuing imperfection. In Japan, it is called Wabi-sabi the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”

What about the 25 inventions that are completely pointless, as a Car Exhaust Grill or a sadomasochistic tea kettle?

Leaning towers seem to attract a lot more visitors than towers standing upright.

A choir for people who cannot sing and are tone deaf was started by Nadine Cooper, 48, who wanted to join a singing group but never had the courage because she was aware she could not stay in tune. Her self-consciousness started when she was a child after a music teacher ordered her to keep her mouth shut because of her awful singing.A tuneless choir for those who . . .well can’t sing: Listen, this bunch is really hair-raising the roof!

 There are hundreds of quotes about imperfection:
At last, imperfection is even a subject of serious studies, for example, “On Ugliness” by  the legendary   Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician and university professor  Umberto Eco.

Out of Date Concepts – Thinkibility Nibble


Concepts occur in solid form and are often not questioned. After all, they have proved their worth and value. Concepts as an abstract or generic ideas, conceived in the mind, are generalized from particular instances. The more “solid” a concept appears the higher the chances are that the concept was conceived in the collective mind decades or ages ago.

Historically, marriages in most societies were arranged by parents and older relatives with the goal of legacy and economic stability and political alliances. So, the concept then was defined as a kind of business agreement, rather than something that involved love.  It is therefore  not surprising that a concept such as matchmaker – as the process of matching two or more people together for the purpose of marriage –  also got outdated.

In general, outdated concepts can be considered as originally adequate in the circumstances in which they were designed, but now hopelessly outdated because of the changed circumstances, be it economic, social, historical, technological, etc.

Schematically shown:

outdated concept.png

For example:  since we have reduced democracy to selecting representatives, and reduced representative democracy to mean simply voting, a valuable system is now mired in deep difficulties.

” In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.”

“This blind faith in the ballot box as the ultimate base on which popular sovereignty rests can be seen most vividly of all in international diplomacy. When western donor countries hope that countries ravaged by conflict – such as Congo, Iraq or Afghanistan – will become democracies, what they really mean is this: they must hold elections, preferably on the western model, with voting booths, ballot papers and ballot boxes; with parties, campaigns and coalitions; with lists of candidates, polling stations and sealing wax, just like we do. And then they will receive money from us.”

“Local democratic and proto-democratic institutions (village meetings, traditional conflict mediation or ancient jurisprudence) stand no chance. These things may have their value in encouraging a peaceful and collective discussion, but the money will be shut off unless our own tried-and-tested recipe is adhered to.”

Could we conceive alternative designs for  a system that would express the will of the people, as is the original idea behind the concept of democracy: a system of government in which all the people of a state are involved in making decisions about its affairs?

Look for some real interesting ideas in “Why elections are bad for democracy ” by David Van Reybrouck.

There are many concepts that have become outdated or soon will become. Can you think of any? And can you design any new concepts that can be used instead?

Poor Social Design – Thinkibility Nibble

According to a Dutch report, the number of people with intellectual disabilities getting paid care,  increased between 1998 and 2011 fivefold (the figures for other Western countries will not be much different)

The large increase is not because more people have a disability, but because the diagnosis is now  made more often by changing demands in society. This would be partly because more and more digital services, such as Internet banking and the smartcard, have becomm widely available. That someone has a mild intellectual disability is by that more likely to be noticed.

Zahlstation im real,-  Future Store

Read again.

The number of people with intellectual disabilities getting paid care are increasing because more and more services become digital available.

It is normally assumed that (digital) technology will make our existence  easier, yet large population groups are excluded from participation in society by using the same (digital) technology.

Instead they get paid off for their inconvenience, caused by a poor design of digital services.

Technology should be used to make things more simple. Techology that make thinks more complex is simple of a very poor design quality, even for not intelectual disabled.