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Can Innovation be

Great article by Anand Venkataraman about some of the impact of the innovation practices we developed and used at SRI — “Can Innovation Be Learned?”  


I’d like to answer this based on my experience of having worked for almost a decade at one of the most magical places in the Bay Area – SRI International. SRI has variously been described as “The Mecca of R&D”, “The powerhouse of Silicon Valley’s innovation”, and “Where the mouse was born”, if not “The source of the very first Internet communication in the world.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my tremendously fulfilling years at SRI, it is that we are all, every one of us, innovative and creative at our cores, but many incorrectly believe otherwise because of a bad habit that’s been ingrained in us. We fail to adhere to the discipline of innovation, and our innovative flashes often die out before they see light of day. Unfortunately, sometimes these flashes are even killed off before they reach cognitive maturation in our minds, thereby leading us to think that we lack creativity or innovation!

Luckily for us, recent research is generating increasing evidence that these old habits can be broken for good, and that a growth mindset can be cultivated in which anyone can consciously work to improve their mental faculties (See Dweck’s work [1], for instance). With the right mindset one begins to recognize and appreciate that all innovation and creativity starts off as simple ideas that must be nurtured to grow into the resplendent trees they will become with the right effort.

Not surprisingly there are many calculi for nurturing the germ of innovation, even for identifying it in the first place within the vast forests of our thoughts. The one I was trained to practice, and the one for which I have grateful first hand evidence of utility, of course, is SRI’s own. If you haven’t read the book [2], I highly recommend that you get Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want.

TL;DR? You’re in luck. In a nutshell, the discipline is to follow the iterative four-step practice we call NABC. The letters stand for the four cornerstones of innovation: Need, Approach, Benefits and Competition. These are built into an iterative quantitative framework that allows one to measure progress on the scale of innovation and improve the value proposition of their solution. Yes – the quantification is important. How else would you make objective progress?

The Need

Focus on the customer’s need – Not your need as an innovator, or a shareholder’s need for value. Does the customer have a need for something? How acute is this need? Would a solution be a lifesaver, a painkiller or a supplement? [3]. Furthermore, how can you quantify the need? Is the need relevant to one person, a few people, or an entire demographic? Is it like this shade of pink you accidentally painted your daughter’s bedroom in that you find personally distasteful and would like removed, or is it a need to automatically filter and transform images incident on a retina to make them pleasing to the eye – any viewer’s eye? The first thing you do is to record the need as you see it and determine just how big the scope is. If it’s not large enough (doesn’t impact a significant number of people) can it be made to? These questions can’t be answered and refined until after you’ve quantified the need. So as a first step, write down a tentative number on how big you think this need is.

The Approach

It’s all about how you solve this particular need of the customer. Here is where you’ll ask yourself what your secret sauce is. It’s important to have a secret sauce because that’s what tells you how innovative your original idea is. Besides, a secret sauce is your entry barrier – A successful company needs an entry barrier to give it an opportunity and a kind of monopoly and incentive to develop its idea to its fullest. Without an entry barrier, rather than focus on refining the core of the idea at a time when it’s needed most, you would be expending all your energy on deterring others from eating your lunch. Instead of simplifying your idea, which is the key to success, you’ll end up making it more complex which spells certain doom.

Don’t worry if you don’t have an approach completely nailed down just yet because by the time you’re done with this process, you will have one, sure as day follows night.

Again, it’s critical that you somehow quantify the approach, even if tentatively. You might write down things like “allows the user to reach their destination in half the number of miles” or even “One Click purchase? How about NO-CLICK purchase?” Incidentally, that last one was exactly the approach I wrote down in 2004 when we developed the value proposition for a technology that would enable users to purchase things by voice. You may now be thinking “Purchase by Speaking N words? How about Purchase by Speaking NO Words (i.e. Just by STARING)? Or even the holy grail of advertisers – “How about Purchase by Thinking it for N Seconds?” Better still – how about “Purchase by NOT EVEN THINKING IT (0 seconds)?” – Incredibly, such a product is already out there in the real world! Today, you can buy a refrigerator that knows its contents using a combination of sensors and can purchase things for you before you even realize you’re about to run out. Eat that, Mr. Dash!

The Benefit

This tells you not only what a difference for the better your solution will make in the life of the customer, but also how much of a difference. It’s important to understand that almost every significant benefit can be quantified even if only by proxy. Sometimes we may consider benefits that seem vague and think that it’s impossible to quantify them, but that’s only because we haven’t yet got the discipline to look at them closely enough – We give in to the euphoria of having identified a need and run with it without critically examining it. Or we give in to the fear that if we looked at it too closely it might turn out there wasn’t really a need after all. Discipline gives us the courage to transcend the fear and the willpower to resist this premature euphoria.

With patience, perseverance and practice we will learn to identify things in a customer’s life that are inherently valuable. It doesn’t always (rarely, in fact) boil down to the number of dollars a person would save by using an invention. Often the quantification of a benefit may be in terms of intangible but yet quantifiable things – for example, increasing the number of hours of their free time that they would spend with family and friends or on their hobbies, the number of words they have to use to communicate a particular idea, the amount of effort expended (in footsteps or calories, for instance) to get to a certain place, or the number of minutes one could be continuously immersed and engaged in an entertaining or other valuable experience. It may even be some combination or collection of multiple benefits, each of which has its own quantification cell. The important thing is to get this down, and not worry about putting down something incorrect because you will get numerous chances to go back and revise it. Remember that NABC is an iterative framework.

The Competition

This is what others are and could be doing to address the same need you have identified. Many times young innovators are bound to think that their idea is so radical that there exists no competition. But that’s a mistaken notion. Every idea and proposal has competition if we look at it closely enough. I appreciate that an empty slate is hard to get started on, so here’s at least one competition you can write down for any possible idea. Humanity has survived until now, hasn’t it? Thus it must have found some way to live with that need you identified – or we’d all have been killed off by now. So there you have it – your first competitor is the prospect that users would simply continue to do whatever they’ve been doing in the past to address that need. The number one competitor to your invention is the alternative of not having it.

The source of the difficulty that most people have in identifying competition is that they always think of their approach and not the need when trying to find competitors. It’s understandable that the approach takes center stage, of course, because that’s where your secret sauce is – the thing of value you bring to the table, and naturally the thing you feel the greatest affinity for. But to really understand your competition, the NABC framework teaches you to step back and give up being intoxicated by the coolness of your approach for a bit. Think of the need and try to make a list of everything anyone is or could be doing to address the need. Don’t think “Who else is using the same or similar approach as mine to meet that need?” but think “What have people done or could do to meet this need.” If you came up with the idea of sticky tape as a way to fix notices to doors, don’t only think of glue as your competitor. Think of thumbtacks, chalk, email, Facebook, Twitter, Trump and why, even gossip, fake news, and word-of-mouth propagandization as competition.

Once you identify and make a list of the competitive approaches as exhaustively as you can, you’ll find it to be a list of approaches to solve the original need. Your own approach will now be one of those in the long list. You can now start enumerating the pros and cons of each approach quantitatively. Does a particular competitor reach the same users (market) as your idea will? Does it offer the same benefits? Is it cheaper or more expensive to make? And so on. If the answer to any of these is questions is unfavorable, this is your chance to go back and see if either the need or the approach can be adjusted to accommodate this shortcoming. Feel fortunate that you found this issue now, before investing thousands, if not millions, of dollars into productizing your originally short-sighted idea.

You must remain calm, reassured, brave and courageous as you do this. Here is where it helps to be a team so that your partner can step in when you have a mental block against identifying a competitor’s strength and vice-versa.

The goal of this process is to boil your secret sauce down to its bare essentials and uncover the golden nugget hidden within it. That’s your core value proposition. Everything else? They’re just distractions and fluff that stand in your way of realizing your true value. The NABC is a tried and tested idea-mining process guaranteed to lead you to your golden nugget, or help you decide to mine elsewhere sooner than later.


As I alluded to in the section on Competition, when you’ve looked at all four components of the NABC once, you get to go back and revisit the Need again, repeating the whole process as many times as needed. Chances are that your original thoughts on what you believed to be the need has changed. So you revise it. Just like a Scientific Theory progresses in the Lakatosian or Kuhnian framework, you start with the original need, and after having gone through one cycle of analysis, you come back and augment it to account for its shortcomings. You may patch it up here and there, or make fundamental changes. But the bottom line is that as long as the customer’s need is genuine, like the strong kernel of a Lakatosian scientific theory, it would have survived numerous attempts at falsification. Every failed attempt to take it down would only have made it stronger by fortifying it at all its weak spots. So even if nothing else, the NABC practice promises to at least strengthen your value proposition thus.

I often tell my students that the best scientists are those who are hell-bent on disproving their own theories, and the best programmers are those who try to crash their own code. So it is with innovation. The best innovators are those who feel pledged to proving that their own inventions are useless. The NABC framework enables you to do just that by detaching yourself from your idea and looking at it calmly, coolly, and objectively. That’s the only way it can make a dent in the universe.


Just this morning, I was talking to someone about why so many of us are reluctant to act upon our ideas and reify them. I remembered a story my father once told me – of a man who promised to lead people to the wealthiest place on earth. He led his followers to a cemetery.

When they seemed perplexed, he said “Here you will find all the loveliest symphonies that were never composed, the greatest plays never written, the most useful inventions never made and the most beautiful sentiments of love gone unexpressed.”

Given that every human mind is (and soon artificial ones will be) fertile grounds for creative ideas, what is it that prevents most of us from achieving our full inventive potentials? Why do people not follow through on their ideas with the discipline needed to actualize them? I now believe that craving and aversion might be the twin pernicious causes of all stifled creativity. These manifest in the form of a greed for specialness and a fear of losing whatever specialness we managed to find and thus cling to for dear life. We feel special when we encounter in ourselves one of those sparks of creativity that spontaneously erupt in our minds every now and then. But we immediately fear that if we scrutinize it too much, it may not be all that important after all. Better to savour the sensation of specialness than put it to rest by test, no matter how slim that possibility. Why kill the goose that lays golden eggs?

Yet when we step back and reflect we see that the stream of creative sparks is as steady as it has always been. If not one, then another is bound to come along soon. So armed with this new knowledge of ourselves as factories of creativity, we gain the reassurance that we would never run out of creative ideas. We shed the fear and garner the courage to scrutinize each idea to its very core, subjecting them to the rigorous NABC razor tests. For we know that if one doesn’t measure up to our exacting standards, sooner or later, another one is bound to blossom in its place.

References and Notes

[1] Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House, Chicago.

[2] Carlson, C. R., & Wilmot, W. W. (2006). Innovation: The five disciplines for creating what customers want. New York: Crown Business.

[3] Our original framework identified only two categories – Painkillers and Supplements (Aspirin versus Vitamins), but I have found it useful to talk about 3 categories, introducing Lifesavers.

Posted on February 1, 2017

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