Chemicals & Materials Now!

From basic to specialty, and everything in between

Select category
Search this blog

Seeds of Innovation – Part 1

Posted on November 21st, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


In my long career of commercial development in the chemical industry, I have found ideation to be one of the most difficult and frustrating processes to design and manage.  Tools such as StageGate™ have allowed the industry to standardize most of the product development process.  But the “fuzzy front-end” of idea generation remains a somewhat mysterious amorphous process across much of the industry.  Unlike StageGate, no one process has emerged that can reliably standardize ideation.  I have concluded that ideation is best done as multiple parallel processes that get insight from diverse sources and create as many “seeds” as possible.

Avoiding Flying Cars

Perhaps my biggest frustration with ideation is what I call the “flying car syndrome.”  “Flying cars” are ideas that sound great in a conference room but defy the laws of nature, market dynamics and/or economics.  All too often I see the chemical industry equivalent of “flying cars” in the output of the annual internal “brainstorming session.” Internal brainstorming makes for great team building and corporate politics but often yields unactionable silly ideas.  Participants are often chosen from a diverse range of functions and roles but are ill-informed about (or choose to ignore) market needs, technology, and the competitive reality of the domain.  Often there are no constraints put on the process, participants get too caught-up in the process design and the session spins out of control.  The end result is grandiose ideas that appease all brainstorming participants (and management) but are outlandishly ridiculous or impossible to act upon.

Making brainstorming work better comes through deeper insight and knowledge of the domain by all participants and constraints on the process.

Knowledge – Having diverse teams is great but team member knowledge is more important.  I recently found a marvelous piece of research by Dr. Sarah Kaplan, former professor at Wharton School of Business that may explain why so many internal sessions fail.  Specifically, participants lack deep knowledge of the domain.  In an interview Dr. Kaplan discusses the key piece of her research that seems to be especially important to brainstorming:

“Everyone thinks we’re going to solve a creative problem by coming together and brainstorming.  What (our research) would say is brainstorming is not enough without the deep knowledge development that you would need in a particular domain to understand what the issues are so that you can break away from existing ways of thinking.

When we think about any organization that is trying to promote innovation, it’s typically been recommended that you try to create processes that bring together distant and diverse knowledge. So we hear lots and lots of research about diverse teams, you know, bringing marketing and R&D and engineering and all the different groups together to generate innovation.

And while that is clearly very important, what we are finding from this research is that you also need different processes that allow you to do the deep dive into one knowledge space. So if we’re thinking about an R&D organization, that means really valuing the “R” part of R&D, the research part that says we’re going to really dive deeply into an area before we even know specifically what the product might be or the service might be because we have to understand an area deeply enough in order to be able to identify the key problems, challenges or anomalies in the field.”   (

This means carefully choosing membership, doing some research in advance and making sure that research is available to all participants before the session.  The research should focus on uncovering emerging and latent unmet needs and come from voice-of-customer and voice-of-market studies.

Constraints – The other consideration to avoid “flying cars” is to constrain the brainstorming session with limits and boundaries set by:

  • Product lines, chemistries or processes
  • Assets and processes
  • Core competencies
  • Value chain economics and customer cost of use
  • Customers, end-uses, markets
  • Geography
  • Budget

These constraints should not be arbitrary but instead deeply connected to business strategy.

And before I am accused of crushing creativity, I will concede there is certainly a fine line between constraining and stifling the process.  Use common sense in setting boundaries.

My final suggestion – do not rely solely on internal brainstorming sessions.

Finding Other Seeds to Sow

As I think about ideation beyond internal brainstorming, I find it useful to break innovation down into the categories of “evolutionary” (incremental short-term development) and “revolutionary” (step-change longer-term research).  I also find it useful to think about the changing market dynamics that can create unmet needs and the likely sources to uncover these dynamics.  Evolutionary ideation should be much more focused on discrete products and applications and require less “creative” input.  Conversely, revolutionary innovation is often complex and more open-ended with multiple drivers of unmet needs.  Ideation for revolutionary should come from wide-ranging sources and processes.

A framework to consider for additional sources of idea generation is shown below:

Seeds of innovation  part 1
I am particularly fond of customer interviews and forums and will explore some of these other “seeds” in future blogs.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

R&D Solutions for Chemicals & Materials

We're happy to discuss your needs and show you how Elsevier's Solution can help.

Contact Sales