Here’s How to Make Innovation Real

There’s a wealth of information on innovation out there, but how can you turn all the theories into action?

Professor Neil Tarallo, a senior lecturer at Cornell’s Hotel School, focuses on how to foster innovation within the workplace in his most recent discussion with eCornell’s Chris Wofford.

Wofford: Neil, it’s great to have you back here with us. What do your students and our webinar viewers need to know about innovation?

Tarallo: My favorite definition of innovation—and believe me, there are many of them out there—was articulated by Peter Drucker, a great researcher out of Harvard who really had a great take on how and where innovation and entrepreneurship come together.

Drucker said, “Innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance.” I really like that concept of a new dimension. It provides us with opportunities to apply things in a very different way than they’ve ever been applied before.

Innovation really comes in two different levels. One is incremental, or what some people call “sustainable innovation.” And then there is disruptive innovation.

Wofford: Can you walk us through what you mean by those?

Tarallo: Well, an incremental innovation is really a small improvement or upgrade to an existing concept. It can be technology, a product or service. Think of software upgrades that fix minor things or add new features. In the physical world, think of Gillette. They started with a single razor. Over time, Gillette has innovated and created a lot of different things. They went to disposable razors, they have multi-angle blades, they have lubrication bars. So Gillette is an interesting example of how incremental innovation has allowed a company to sustain market leadership for a very long time.

When it comes to disruptive innovation, we’re talking about innovation that changes the way people think about things. Clay Christensen coined the term to describe a process by which a product or service takes root initially in a very small and unnoticed way but gathers momentum as it goes to the market and then people start to really grab onto it.

One of the interesting things about disruptive innovations is that we don’t know if disruption is happening before it actually starts to happen. An example of this, to stay within the shaving realm, is Dollar Shave Club, which has taken us away from the expensive replacement blades by saying they’ll just send you new blades every month for just a couple of dollars.

Wofford: Right, for them it is a subscription-based product and a recurring revenue model for the company. That’s kind of how they get you.

Tarallo: Exactly, and that disrupts the old business model that Gillette created, which was to give you the razor handle and then sell the blades at very high prices.

The important thing to remember is that both incremental and disruptive innovations are necessary for organizations. In my opinion, you need to have a plan for both the incremental improvements that you’ll be doing as well as constantly searching for that disruption that’s going to completely change things.

These two innovations generally focus around three areas: technical innovation, product innovation, and service innovation. A great example of service innovation is how Netflix changed the movie rental business.

But in order for innovation to be successful, you have to create an opportunity within the organization for entrepreneurial behavior to really manifest itself and to take hold. You need an organizational architecture that fosters and supports entrepreneurial behaviors so that you can be chasing after these innovations as you go along.

Wofford: How does a business go about establishing that?

Tarallo: There are two components that I think of when I try to action innovation within an organization. One is what I like to think of as “opportunity discovery” and the second is value proposition design.

When it comes to opportunity discovery, there is a clear methodology that applies. It starts with observation of the market and of potential customers, getting them to talk about their experiences—doing interviews with them to gather information, applying surveys and focus groups and the science behind those. It’s observing people and how they behave as they go throughout their days.

This process is actually called ethnography, which is sort of a fancy word, but it’s really a simple process of just watching people and taking note of what they’re doing and what they’re experiencing as they go through their daily lives. We’re looking for things that are missing for them as they try to accomplish tasks. We’re looking at problems that they encounter that need to be overcome and we’re also looking for pain that they’re experiencing along the way.

In those observations, I’m thinking about three specific behaviors: the functionality of what it is that they’re trying to apply, the social implications of what they’re doing, and also any emotional implications.

Wofford: We have some open-ended questions here that I think it would be good to get the audience to think about. When was the last time that you spoke with your customers regarding their experience with your product, service, or technology? If you would put your answers in the chat window please.

Tarallo: Look at that, someone wrote “just yesterday.” I like that, that’s great. Someone else replied “every single day.” That’s a lot of work so I would be curious how that actually works. Is that through a survey, and what do you do with that information when you get it? That’s really the big thing.

Wofford: That brings me to the natural follow-up question. What do you do with this feedback?

Tarallo: For me, every time a student comes into my office to talk to me about anything, I get information from them for some research that I’m doing about entrepreneurship and how we teach entrepreneurship. I’ll ask a very simple open-ended question, which is “What has it been like for you registering and taking entrepreneurship classes here at Cornell?” And when that student leaves, I have a little red book on my desk and I’ll open it up, put the date and their name and take notes on what they told me. So it’s good to pose these really open-ended questions to get your respondents to tell you stories.

Storytelling is really one of the most powerful tools in this process. When you can get people talking you through their experience, you really learn things you wouldn’t have anticipated.

Obviously an important part of that is to listen carefully, but you also need to look for those nonverbal cues as well as you go along. From there, you can start to generate a hypothesis about what is going on in the marketplace or what is happening within the context of your interest.

Wofford: And what’s the best way to get people to share their stories with you?

Tarallo: It can be through singular and/or multiple engagements, meaning I can sit down with you for an extended period of time and have a longer interview, or we can do multiple engagements where I’m talking to you for 10 to 15 minutes over a long period of time. Both of those are powerful applications of the interview process.

Surveys are another step. Here we start to move away from the qualitative aspects of our research and we start moving more into the quantitative. Surveys primarily help validate hypotheses by reaching a very large sample size. You can also use surveys at the very beginning of your process simply to identify the people that you want to be speaking with to make sure that you have a diverse population in your sample size. You’ll be looking for demographic information like race, geographic location, household income, age, and so on to ensure that you get the right population to ask. Otherwise, your validation is not going to be accurate and you’ll have problems going forward.

Focus groups are another popular thing but I personally stay away from them because there is a real science to focus groups. To run a focus group well, I think you need to be trained in it or you need to hire people to do it for you. And they’re expensive, so when I’m in startup mode, focus groups are generally not something I’ll incorporate.

Wofford: Whichever method you choose, you need to then do something with the information you gather. What do you do?

Tarallo: When we analyze the data, there are a handful of things we do: code the information that we have, look for patterns or anomalies in the information, and then start to generalize and create a narrative around it.

We want to track our assumptions and any biases that we think were brought in and then we want to validate it in the market through a series of controlled experiments and prototyping. We know that these experiments are often designed to fail, but they’ll teach us something that will help us move forward again and take that next step.

I’m a big fan of controlled experiments that are likely to fail, but when they fail, they’re not going to impact our market or people’s perception of our company. I’m not a proponent of the philosophy these days of going out and failing big and failing fast. Failure is just not a good thing, I’m sorry. Controlling it makes a lot more sense, as I can learn more when I do that.

This, in my opinion, is particularly true in the service industries. Service-based businesses are much harder to innovate in and much harder to build business models around. It’s relatively easy to hand somebody a tangible product or put a technology in front of them and have them tell you what’s wrong with it and then you can do an update or a new iteration. But if you’re trying something new out in your restaurant and it results in bad service, most of the affected customers won’t come back to your restaurant a second time. So we want to be very careful. It’s about testing. It’s about failing in a controlled way. It’s about repeating that process until we have what we need as we go forward.

Wofford: Can you tie all of this together for us?

Tarallo: As I’m going through the innovation process, I’m thinking about and utilizing all of the information that I got through the ethnographic research that I’ve done. Through that process of observation, storytelling, interviewing, surveying, and validation, I’m bringing those components in and placing them on the value proposition canvas, which is a powerful tool that presents a graphic illustration of what I’m experiencing and what I’m seeing in the marketplace. I use Post-it notes so that I can take them down and move them as things change, so it’s a very dynamic tool and really lets us get to where we want to go.

My advice to folks is always that if you find yourself sitting at a computer doing research, you’re doing it wrong. It’s all about really interfacing with the marketplace. All your hypotheses need to be validated in the market. We need to be doing those small controlled experiments that help us validate things without damaging our relationship with our customers.

Wofford: Neil, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Tarallo: Thank you, Chris. And just remember, it’s all about getting out there and trying it. You probably won’t succeed the first time you do it, but don’t be dissuaded. Get out and practice. It’s the application of it that you get better and better at.


Want to hear more? This interview is based on Neil Tarallo’s live eCornell WebSeries event, A Fresh Look at Innovation. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Entrepreneurship topics.