Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Bruce Vojak, Innovation Expert

Bruce Vojak is co‐author of No‐Excuses Innovation: Strategies for Small‐ and Medium‐Sized Mature Enterprises (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022) and Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012). He is Managing Director and Founder of Breakthrough Innovation Advisors, a consultancy that periodically advises Procter & Gamble and regularly presents to, leads workshops for, and advises various other companies on innovation. He currently serves on the boards of Midtronics, JVA Partners, and Micron Industries Corporation.  Earlier in his career, Vojakserved as Associate Dean and Adjunct Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign; as Director of Advanced Technology for Motorola’s non‐semiconductor components business; in research, corporate development, and business development positions of increasing responsibility at Amoco Corporation; and on the research staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Vojak earned a BS (with Highest Honors), MS and PhD degrees in engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana‐Champaign and an MBA, with concentrations in finance and marketing, from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He recently spoke to The Innovator about his latest book and why it is so important for small and medium-sized businesses to innovate.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on small- and medium-sized mature enterprises (SMMEs) in your book?

BV: Small- and medium-sized mature businesses create and sustain the most jobs but are rarely addressed in the literature about innovation. They need guidance even more than large mature companies. Many SMMEs do not buy into the idea of investing in innovation. The top reasons they provide for why they say they won’t innovate are that they believe it is a waste of money, they would rather take a wait and see approach or they want to complete Lean or Six Sigma programs first. While I fully support Lean and Six Sigma programs, some companies go too far in the direction of optimization and then it is difficult to overlay an innovative culture on top of such an entrenched perspective. Often, SMMEs believe they don’t have the resources, or they don’t know how to get started on innovation. Our book is meant to serve as a guide. We make the financial case for why it is important to innovate to remain competitive. In a way, it is like playing poker. You start with a small bet. If you have a good hand, keep going, but if your hand turns out not to be good, then you set it aside and try again.

Q: Who is the book targeting?

BV: Our primary audience consists of four categories of people working in or with SMMEs: Owners, board members, and CEOs; presidents or general managers and their leadership teams; those who are skilled and inclined toward innovating; and those who are skilled and inclined toward optimizing the existing business. We believe that this holistic approach is necessary as complete alignment, from top to bottom and across the organization, is necessary to succeed.

Q: What are some of the key takeaways from the book?

BV: My co-author, Walter B. Herbst, and I document an approach based on six main themes:

  • The need to renew to survive and thrive; ie  innovation is necessary for the long-term survival and success of a business.
  • Manageable risk – That innovation does not require high risk investment. Instead, by following the “poker-like” approach I describe eariler, risk is minimized. 
  • Reasonable cost – Innovation does not require a large up-front investment. Small bets return great value in terms of insight on how to proceed.
  • Proven methods – Tools and methodologies exist that dramatically reduce failure and improve the likelihood of success.
  • People – Tools and methodologies, while necessary, are insufficient on their own for innovation success. Hiring and developing the right people is critical to enable an innovation investment to succeed.
  • Personal courage- Everyone, at all levels of the organization, must exhibit the type of personal courage necessary to make innovation happen.

We address these six themes by covering each of the following in some detail: design thinking, emotional design, innovation processes and tools such as open innovation, lean innovation and product and technology roadmaps, and the people who make innovation succeed.

Walter addresses design thinking since he has been working in this area since before it was called design thinking. He illustrates how it is possible to take a low investment, low risk approach. To get started you need to deeply understand customer needs and the market and gain insights on a technology or a service or a business model that addresses a problem or need.

Sometimes being innovative is not about solving a problem but redefining the problem.  For example, in the Serial Innovators book I co-authored in 2012 that outlines how individuals create and deliver breakthrough innovations in mature firms, we tell the story of Proctor & Gamble serial innovator Tom Osborn, who was responsible for more than 100 U.S. patents which earn P&G over $ 2 billion a year, including the feminine hygiene products Always Ultra, Wings and Pearl Tampons. When Tom started working on feminine hygiene products, they were designed to perform like diapers. Yet, he believed there had to be a better way. He did research, connected the dots, and saw patterns that others didn’t see, resulting in a product concept that was designed to perform like a garment. He almost lost his job a couple of times, but he persisted and brought other people along with him. It is an important illustration of how it is not just technical or market insight but also the ability to work with others that matters.

Q: Large companies can afford to have people on staff that focus on innovation, but many SMMEs can’t. What do you say to small companies that argue they don’t have the budget or the time for this?

BV: I understand the arguments but there are ways to make this work. First, SMMEs need to understand that they can’t afford to not innovate if they want to survive and thrive over time. One way to address this staffing question is to have select, high-performing innovators spend roughly half of their time on innovation with the remainder of their focus on the current business. I like this approach because the people involved in innovation are still half-tethered to the marketplace.

Another approach that works is to bring in people from the outside. Walter gives an example in the book which illustrates how he worked with a client company and within six months was able to come up with a new product concept, a new design. Sometimes getting someone to come in from the outside is necessary.

I have worked with one client on innovation on and off for nearly five years who has yet to talk to one end-user. I have even tried to refer them to a colleague that they could bring in for a half day and have him talk to customers if that would help. Sadly, they say they don’t have time for this. They are too busy. I fear for companies like this and the regional economies they are operating in. The likely outcome is an eventual exit from the market, and it may be a very messy exit, resulting in lost jobs. It is like a game of musical chairs. The music is going to stop at some point and those companies that aren’t innovating, and their employees, will be left out.

Q: Why, in your experience, do innovation projects fail?

BV: When companies invest in innovation and get no results it is often because they do not understand their customers and their markets. Often engineers do not have access to end users, or the company works through sales representatives or distributors on their side or dispassionate, cost-driven purchasing groups on the customer company’s side.

The companies that get this right are those that recruit the people with the most potential and then have them spend time with customers to really understand their problems. The key is finding the right people. If someone, over a period of 20 years, hasn’t exhibited innovative behavior it is very unlikely they will ever do so. I don’t believe everybody can innovate. People can ossify in their careers.

Look for people who will take ownership of a problem. My advice is bet on a few people; then measure them not just on talk but on performance. Otherwise, go outside. Recruit the best people who have done this in industry and hire them part-time. They are not easy to find but there are people out there who love a good customer problem and can spot patterns that others don’t see.

Q: Are you optimistic that SMMEs can successfully innovate?

BV: If you are part of the company with an innovation-friendly culture and leadership is behind it, then I am very optimistic. When small- and medium-sized companies are really committed to innovation and practice it using the insights we describe in our book, they can run circles around larger companies in mature industries. The picture on our book jacket perfectly illustrates this point. It is of a box cutter with a completely new design that was developed by a small company from outside the sector. It has a ceramic blade that won’t hurt people if they get poked with it. A small business that needed to open a lot of boxes saw the need for a better design and worked with Walter to come up with one. The product is now part of a new line of business for them and is selling well to companies because it addresses their insurance needs, something they hadn’t realized until they created prototypes and tested it with potential customers This is a great example of a design thinking approach: identify a need, dig into the problem, develop a prototype, and test the market. This is the main message of our book: keep it simple, take a low-risk, low-cost approach, discover, learn, and—along the way—find a new way to solve a problem.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.