Innovation is an essential factor for the success of many companies, in particular those in dynamic sectors such as the high tech industry. As a result, innovation projects are often at the heart of their development strategies. While these projects can often lead to innovative products or services, the improvement is usually incremental rather than radical. Recent research highlights forward-looking search as an essential factor to encourage radical innovation.
Fiona Schweitzer is a professor of marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management where her research focuses on various aspects of the innovation process. In collaboration with two colleagues in Denmark, she recently published new research on the topic of innovation projects and the impact of forward-looking search. “We investigated the relevance of forward-looking search for innovation projects in order to determine the impact on innovativeness,” adds Fiona.
Look to the future
Most innovation projects rely on search and analysis practices in order to understand the market, existing technology and customers. While usual search practices look at the current situation and the near future, forward-looking search is particularly focused on a more distant future. “Most innovations are incremental improvements that meet current expectations. Forward-looking search is about being a step ahead of the game. This means looking at possibilities that might not even be relevant to current customers or thinking about the future ten years from now,” explains Fiona.
Creating a continuous process
Many companies organize brainstorming sessions to come up with the new big idea. However, somewhere along the innovation process, these new ideas end up being less innovative than initially imagined. “Forward-looking search has to be a continuous process. There has to be a framework that enables the project team to continuously gather data about future tech possibilities, new customer opportunities and emerging (or yet to emerge) markets. It’s important to have both formal and informal mechanisms for data collecting,” highlights Fiona.
3 key factors for forward-looking search
Constantly gathering and analyzing data is an investment. In their paper, the researchers underline three factors that can help companies know when and how to implement forward-looking search.
- A dynamic environment: “Forward-looking search is a valuable investment for companies that compete in dynamic sectors such as the high tech industry where radical innovation can be the key to major success.”
- Slack resources: “This process requires both human resources and financial resources throughout the life cycle of the innovation project.”
- Project planning: “Forward-looking search has to be integrated into project planning. Team members need a mindset that enables them to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. They also need enough free time to think about the future and its endless possibilities. You have to find the right balance between a formal framework to guide the search process and a certain amount of flexibility for teams to explore whatever they might happen upon.”
About the study
The results of this research are based on the study of 159 innovation projects in Danish companies. By combining data on innovation projects and secondary data on each company’s innovation background, the researchers were able to conclude that forward-looking search was an essential factor for highly innovative projects. They also concluded that project planning is a double-edged sword. As Fiona explains: “You have to find the sweet spot between formal planning and flexibility.” Finally, the results demonstrated the importance of having access to human and financial resources to implement forward-looking search.