Sources of Innovation in Business

31/10/2022 0 By indiafreenotes

Innovation is the act of developing a new process or product and introducing it to the market. It is essentially an entrepreneurial act, whether it takes place in a start-up firm, a large organization, a not-for-profit, or a public-sector agency. Innovation means change: sometimes radical change, such as the development of the computer, and sometimes incremental change, such as the modification of existing computer software. In either case, managers must develop processes to encourage and guide the changes taking place.

Sources of, and opportunities for, innovation in organizations are described below. Finally, the management principles underlying an innovative organization are identified.

Innovation is the specific function of entrepreneurship, whether in an existing business, a public service institution, or a new venture started by a lone individual in the family kitchen. It is the means by which the entrepreneur either creates new wealth-producing resources or endows existing resources with enhanced potential for creating wealth.

Today, much confusion exists about the proper definition of entrepreneurship. Some observers use the term to refer to all small businesses; others, to all new businesses. In practice, however, a great many well-established businesses engage in highly successful entrepreneurship. The term, then, refers not to an enterprise’s size or age but to a certain kind of activity. At the heart of that activity is innovation: the effort to create purposeful, focused change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential.

Sources of Innovation

There are, of course, innovations that spring from a flash of genius. Most innovations, however, especially the successful ones, result from a conscious, purposeful search for innovation opportunities, which are found only in a few situations. Four such areas of opportunity exist within a company or industry: unexpected occurrences, incongruities, process needs, and industry and market changes.

Three additional sources of opportunity exist outside a company in its social and intellectual environment: demographic changes, changes in perception, and new knowledge.

True, these sources overlap, different as they may be in the nature of their risk, difficulty, and complexity, and the potential for innovation may well lie in more than one area at a time. But together, they account for the great majority of all innovation opportunities.

Unexpected Occurrences

Consider, first, the easiest and simplest source of innovation opportunity: the unexpected. In the early 1930s, IBM developed the first modern accounting machine, which was designed for banks. But banks in 1933 did not buy new equipment. What saved the company according to a story that Thomas Watson, Sr., the company’s founder and long-term CEO, often told was its exploitation of an unexpected success: The New York Public Library wanted to buy a machine. Unlike the banks, libraries in those early New Deal days had money, and Watson sold more than a hundred of his otherwise unsalable machines to libraries.

Fifteen years later, when everyone believed that computers were designed for advanced scientific work, business unexpectedly showed an interest in a machine that could do payroll. Univac, which had the most advanced machine, spurned business applications. But IBM immediately realized it faced a possible unexpected success, redesigned what was basically Univac’s machine for such mundane applications as payroll, and within five years became a leader in the computer industry, a position it has maintained to this day.

The unexpected failure may be an equally important source of innovation opportunities. Everyone knows about the Ford Edsel as the biggest new-car failure in automotive history. What very few people seem to know, however, is that the Edsel’s failure was the foundation for much of the company’s later success. Ford planned the Edsel, the most carefully designed car to that point in American automotive history, to give the company a full product line with which to compete with General Motors. When it bombed, despite all the planning, market research, and design that had gone into it, Ford realized that something was happening in the automobile market that ran counter to the basic assumptions on which GM and everyone else had been designing and marketing cars. No longer was the market segmented primarily by income groups; the new principle of segmentation was what we now call “lifestyles.” Ford’s response was the Mustang, a car that gave the company a distinct personality and reestablished it as an industry leader.

This is a caricature, to be sure, but it illustrates the attitude managers often take to the unexpected: “It should not have happened.” Corporate reporting systems further ingrain this reaction, for they draw attention away from unanticipated possibilities. The typical monthly or quarterly report has on its first page a list of problems that is, the areas where results fall short of expectations. Such information is needed, of course, to help prevent deterioration of performance. But it also suppresses the recognition of new opportunities. The first acknowledgment of a possible opportunity usually applies to an area in which a company does better than budgeted. Thus genuinely entrepreneurial businesses have two “first pages” a problem page and an opportunity page and managers spend equal time on both.


Alcon Laboratories was one of the success stories of the 1960s because Bill Conner, the company’s cofounder, exploited an incongruity in medical technology. The cataract operation is the world’s third or fourth most common surgical procedure. During the past 300 years, doctors systematized it to the point that the only “old-fashioned” step left was the cutting of a ligament. Eye surgeons had learned to cut the ligament with complete success, but it was so different a procedure from the rest of the operation, and so incompatible with it, that they often dreaded it. It was incongruous.

Process Needs

Process need innovations are those which are created to support some other process or product. The development of the ATM (automatic teller machine) and now web-based and Internet banking options allow individuals to do their banking when the bank is closed and without relying on tellers being available. This has freed tellers from performing many routine functions such as cashing checks and has improved both efficiency and profit margins for banks.

Market and Industry Structure Changes

Industry structures change in response to growth and changes in the marketplace. One of the most dramatic changes can be seen in the health care industry. The rise of HMOs (health maintenance organizations) and the decline of the traditional fee-for-service plans have impacted the health-care industry as a whole. The development of the personal computer also had a far-reaching impact on the computer industry as a whole. Until the personal computer, manufacturers of large mainframe computers, terminals, and software developed for specific uses within a firm dominated the computer industry. With the adoption of the personal computer and advent of the laptop computer, the composition of computer sales and marketing changed dramatically.

Demographic Changes

Managers have known for a long time that demographics matter, but they have always believed that population statistics change slowly. In this century, however, they don’t. Indeed, the innovation opportunities made possible by changes in the numbers of people and in their age distribution, education, occupations, and geographic location are among the most rewarding and least risky of entrepreneurial pursuits.

Changes in Perception

Americans have become more health conscious and we have seen the rise in popularity of stores such as GNC which cater to the demand for vitamins and other supplements. Similarly, stores such as Whole Foods provide organic produce, meats, dairy, and fish free from additives to satisfy a growing market demand for chemical-free products.

A change in perception does not alter facts. It changes their meaning, though and very quickly. It took less than two years for the computer to change from being perceived as a threat and as something only big businesses would use to something one buys for doing income tax. Economics do not necessarily dictate such a change; in fact, they may be irrelevant. What determines whether people see a glass as half full or half empty is mood rather than fact, and a change in mood often defies quantification. But it is not exotic. It is concrete. It can be defined. It can be tested. And it can be exploited for innovation opportunity.

New Knowledge

Among history-making innovations, those that are based on new knowledge whether scientific, technical, or social rank high. They are the super-stars of entrepreneurship; they get the publicity and the money. They are what people usually mean when they talk of innovation, although not all innovations based on knowledge are important.

Knowledge-based innovations differ from all others in the time they take, in their casualty rates, and in their predictability, as well as in the challenges they pose to entrepreneurs. Like most superstars, they can be temperamental, capricious, and hard to direct. They have, for instance, the longest lead time of all innovations. There is a protracted span between the emergence of new knowledge and its distillation into usable technology. Then there is another long period before this new technology appears in the marketplace in products, processes, o r services. Overall, the lead time involved is something like 50 years, a figure that has not shortened appreciably throughout history.