August 14, 2017

Bryan McKersie


The Cycle of Innovation

In the global community, Canada is not perceived as a hotbed of innovation. Canada does not have a Silicon Valley or a Research Triangle Park. Canada is perceived as an efficient supplier of resources, and is perceived as being very innovative in extracting those resources from the ground. But Canada does not have a reputation for turning those resources into high value products. The effect of the recent drop in oil prices on the Canadian economy and the Canadian dollar can be taken as a consequence of this lack of economic diversity, and ultimately this may be attributed to a lack of innovation at Canadian R&D organizations.

To improve Canada’s ability to innovate, we must first understand the cycle of innovation and the role of R&D organizations in facilitating innovation. Innovation starts with the recognition of a problem and proceeds in 4 major steps as shown in the attached diagram. The problem can be anything from a commonly recognized problem in an existing industry to an unrecognized need that may improve our lives. A strategic thinker can recognize that problem as an opportunity. It takes an artist, who can use existing knowledge and know-how, to envision a way to capture that opportunity, perhaps in multiple or alternative ways. Often, these ideas or alternatives can not be realized because we lack scientific knowledge. This requires a researcher to explore the ideas and to create the knowledge that turns the ideas into an invention. As the final step in innovation, a builder takes the invention and reduces it to practice thereby solving the original problem and seizing the envisioned opportunity.

Few individuals can master the various skills that are required by a strategist, artist, researcher and builder. These people require skills in strategic thinking, divergent thinking, convergent thinking and tactical thinking, respectively. Steve Jobs is a good example of an innovator who had strength as an artist. He could envision combining know-how and technology into a Mac computer, an iPad and an iPhone. Others turned that vision into a technical and business reality. Thomas Edison is an example of a researcher who took many ideas for filaments in light bulbs (reportedly about 1600) and did research until he found one that worked to his satisfaction. Henry Ford is an example of the builder, who applied the ideas of the assembly line to manufacturing in the automotive manufacturing industry. Great innovators have their strengths and are able to compliment their weaknesses by working in teams and by learning supporting tools and processes.

R&D organizations facilitate innovation by providing potential innovators with a supportive environment, a creative culture and effective management tools. An effective R&D organization provides its scientists not only with support in securing and administering research funds, but support and training in conceiving and managing research projects. This includes tools and processes for creative thinking, for leading and working in teams, for making decisions, for creating and managing creative conflict, for managing risk and constraints, for creating and protecting intellectual property, for communicating with customers and stakeholders, as well as for basic project management from conceiving to scheduling to closing research projects. Not all R&D organizations, nor all research projects, require the same tools. One size does not fit all. The required tools will vary depending on the culture, structure and mandate of the R&D organization, and on the skills and preferences of its scientists. But nonetheless, all R&D organizations should have a diverse toolkit available in order to be effective facilitators of innovation.


Cycle of Innovation Figure


Bryan McKersie is a retired research manager from BASF in North Carolina and professor from the University of Guelph. For a more in depth discussion of this topic, consider attending the CARA webinar “Successfully Managing Innovation” on Dec 2.





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