Elements of Lean Innovation

By Scott Cohen |  November 2, 2015

To answer this reader question on lean innovation, we turned to Tucker Marion, who is an associate professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, where he serves as director of the school’s Innovation Masters Programs. A founder of boutique product-development firm Flashpoint Development Inc., Tucker was previously a cofounder of Innovation Factory Inc., and served as lead engineer at Visteon Corporation.


We’re about to embark on a “lean innovation” journey at our company, and I was wondering if you’d seen any studies or best practices that large corporations should consider?


Great question, and the short answer is, “yes.” Over the last decade, we’ve had the opportunity to conduct research that looked at the fundamentals of lean innovation at hundreds of companies, across a variety of industries. Below are ten key elements that you should consider when developing a lean innovation process within your organization; I’ve stayed brief, but also embedded links to more detailed research that we’ve conducted on each topic:

1. Embrace the Outsider

Corporations can be insular places. And this inward looking focus can make the innovation process sclerotic. We found that those firms that are willing to ‘shake things up’ and bring in outside resources — from project managers and freelance experts to design firms — can clear the cobwebs of their innovation project. Think Tony Fadell at Apple; he was a project manager brought in from the outside to launch and lead the original iPod team, which of course led to the iPhone, iPad, and other innovations. These outside experts can come from design firms, some of which I know partner with InnoLead, as they can help internal projects break the norm. Get a fresh pair of eyes, and not just consultants; rather, hands-on experts who can help reshape your efforts. Some of my additional research and thoughts on design firms can be found here.

2. Give Lots of Rope

Download Tucker’s presentation on lean startup

The best innovation teams are those that are empowered to go inside and outside corporate walls to succeed. In our research, we call these “hyper-agile” teams, which will literally do anything to move the ball down the field. It is essential management give the support and freedom for teams to operate in this fashion. Without it, they are just skunkworks constrained inside the same corporate bounds. I’ve written more on this topic here.

3. Spaces are Important

Corporate sandboxes, innovation spaces and labs. Whatever you call them, you must acknowledge that physical space is important. From the work of Thomas Allen in the 1970’s on workspace communication and collaboration, to the design of Apple’s new Cupertino, Calif. headquarters, the layout and fostering of interaction is tied to communication, knowledge flow, and ultimately innovation success. The most innovative firms care about this, and it generates results. However, just establishing an innovation lab will not spur innovation. There’s a lot more than just the space to consider.

4. Embrace Collaborative Technology

Wikis, Dropbox, cloud-based project management tools, video walls … all of these are technology tools designed to promote communication and collaboration. In our research, the highest performing firms from an innovation project perspective embrace these new tools, and are not afraid to experiment. These firms don’t wait for the corporate IT department; they go out to find and use what they want. Want a video wall? Hook-up continuous Skype between two offices and see what happens. Traditional Gantt charts not cutting it? Try In empirical studies, we found that new and social tools have a significant, positive impact on the development process. I wrote more detailed research on this topic here.

5. Design Beyond Appearance and Usability

Design, like innovation, is somewhat of an overused buzzword. A well-designed product that is beautiful, intuitive, functional, and delivers a world-class user experience is now considered baseline; every product and service must have those qualities. What sets apart the truly innovative firm is the drive beyond traditional design into business model and service innovation and integration. Tesla doesn’t just sell an electric vehicle — they sell a new approach to buying, maintaining, servicing, fueling and updating a transportation device. Yes, the Model S and the new Model X SUV are beautiful and clever, but — above everything else — it is their underlying business and service models that are transformative.

6. Maximize the Minimal

Lean startup methods prescribe the development of functional prototypes to test ideas, validate thinking, refine approach, and pivot as needed. Developing a minimally functional prototype (commonly known as an “MVP”) is a good philosophy, but new technology allows quick and inexpensive development of very credible prototypes. Examples include painted 3D printed prototypes that look and feel like a final product; clean and slick software demos can also yield credible prototypes. If your product development process requires interaction with others — such as users or channel partners — consider leveraging these new prototyping technologies to have a more resolved MVP. However, be careful in how you manage design iterations, because digital technology can foster a culture of endless iterations and churn. More on that problem can be found here.

7. Develop Your Support Network

You can maximize lean innovation efforts by maintaining a “blackbook” of expert vendors and partners who are readily available. This should be your pre-vetted, select, expert, go-to set of vendors and partners, whom you can rely on to design, manufacture, supply, or fulfill with speed and quality. Having this blackbook available up front will help avoid delays once you’ve started the product innovation process. Consider working with local firms; while contract manufacturers like Foxconn are great for giants like Apple, they are likely overkill at this stage. Don’t overlook smaller, local firms and individuals, as they can substantially lower costs and speed time to test. I wrote on this outsourcing phenomenon here.

8. Lead with your Lead

Bring in your lead potential customers early, and have them play a role in the validation process. These can include OEMs, channel partners, and even investors. Enable them to become vested in the project and its success. By most estimates 40 percent of new product launches fail, so it’s important to get validating insights early; you can increase the success of your innovation process by cooperating with those who may write the first purchase order. It’s simple and commonsense, but all too often innovations are developed in a vacuum.

9. Establish ‘Corn Mounds’

In Native American agriculture, careful planting and arrangement of nourishment for seed substantially increased crop yields. This “corn mound” approach was passed through generations, and was eventually adopted by European settlers. For your internal innovation projects, create a culture of R&D “corn mounds.” Programs such as idea hunts, structured seed investment, thoughtful incentives for team involvement, a culture tolerant of failure, and a mentoring and coaching structure can prove critical to the success of your innovation program. While each individual component is important, together they represent a thoughtful approach to innovation cultivation. Money, like water in horticulture, is by itself not a recipe for growth.

10. Strip the Process

In our research of new ventures and product development, the most successful firms eschewed traditional processes like stage-gates, or other traditional corporate cultural benchmarks. Progress was valued much more heavily than process. For your lean innovation efforts, remove red tape, bureaucracy, and traditional procedures. Focus on milestone management rather than traditional project or program management. A task list in can be much more effective than a complicated, and always out of date, Gantt chart. Additional research on this can be found here.

Those are just 10 ideas, culled from the research we’ve done at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. InnoLead subscribers are welcome to contact me personally at any time to ask followup questions, or to chime in with your own thoughts on lean innovation processes.