“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
It can be costly and discouraging to learn late in the game after a significant investment of financial, technical, and human capital is already made that our product is not addressing the true customer need or cannot be manufactured profitably. The innovation spiral is designed to preempt such late-stage disappointments.
The nine causally related building blocks are tailored in a spiral arrangement so that each step is generating critical inputs for the subsequent one. For example, it would not make much sense to brainstorm new concepts before understanding what problem we are trying to solve and for whom. Our business case might not be worth much before understanding potential product cost (i.e., cost of goods sold—COGS estimate) estimated from insights in the preliminary concept design and anticipated manufacturing approach.
The innovation spiral.
“Understanding the problem is half of the solution.” This saying provides one of the most fertile mindsets when initiating an ideation work-stream to generate solutions for a new business opportunity. That is also why the innovation spiral begins with a serpentine pathway that ensures a repeated focus on the first two steps before expanding to four steps and then continuing to iterate through all other incubation building blocks. Jake Knapp offers a nimble methodology , tested by Google Ventures, where a focused five-day sprint moves from problem definition via solution generation to prototyping and validation with users.
“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we find the wrong solution to the right problem.”
Focus on the initial four steps before continuing with the iterations.
The fastest and most effective path forward from problem definition to user-validated prototypes is through focused sprints where the first four steps of the innovation spiral are interrelated and addressed together. The iterative converging schematic below illustrates how the key elements of the initial four steppingstones relate and work together. Needs definition is accomplished by collecting insights from interviews with users and experts, as well as shadowing and observations. The key is to leverage immersive observations in addition to user interviews in order to detect non-obvious, latent, and unarticulated needs. Subsequently, solution attributes are derived from the needs and used to further guide concept ideation, prototyping, and user validation work. During this entire effort, the problem statement (Step 1) is iteratively refined from the user’s point of view.
Solution generation and converging down-selection based on need insights.
Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” That frames another productive mindset for concept generation and prototype work. Concept generation (Step 4) goes through a series of flaring and focusing steps. We flare and diverge when generating and expanding on new ideas while focusing and converging when combining and down-selecting solutions. This is a highly iterative process that relies on rapid prototyping to quickly validate the feasibility and acceptability of different concepts . If there is a healthy number of initial concepts to begin with, then by cross-fertilization and down-selection via the focus-and-flare process, we will almost always arrive at two final competing solutions from which a winner needs to be chosen.
It is often easier to down-select from 10 concepts down to two than from the last two to the final one. That is particularly true when dealing with complex systems that need to balance trade-offs between different scientific phenomena (e.g., a time race in a microfluidic device between the kinetic of a biochemical reaction and a reagent diffusivity intended to prevent that reaction). In such cases when difficult trade-offs and complex technologies need to be integrated under hard constraints, the project could significantly benefit from a deeper feasibility and a technology refinement before moving to product development.
Subsequently, the spiral expands to potential solutions and business constraints as it keeps iterating across all nine opportunity building blocks. In the initial spiral rounds, only basic insights might be obtained. At each successive round through the nine steppingstones, we dig deeper to learn more and ensure that no showstoppers exist. It is common for an idea to change throughout this iterative progression. In fact, it is rare for an idea to survive the innovation spiral unaltered from its original form. When facing an obstacle, the team often adapts the idea or pivots. If a showstopper is encountered, they might decide to completely discontinue—and if it is meant to be, fail fast, fail cheap, and move on.
How many spiral iterations are sufficient? As many as it takes to adequately address all questions and key risks of the entire spiral and come up with a business offering that is at once desirable, feasible, scalable, and viable (see Innovation Principles, 2/7). In most cases, the innovation is ready for product development when the following three foundational opportunity enablers are fully vetted and established: (i) a viable business model reflecting desirable value proposition and a profitable business case, (ii) a target product profile encompassing prioritized customer and business requirements; and (iii) a feasible and scalable functional concept(s) with adequate IP protection potential.
 Knapp, J. (2016). Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days (1st ed.). Simon & Schuster.
 Buxton, B. (2007). Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design. Elsevier.
- Introduction (Oct. ’23)
- Entrepreneurial Perspective: Human-Centered Design Entrepreneurship(Nov. ’23)
- Entrepreneurial Perspective: End to End Product Innovation Framework (Dec. ’23)
- Opportunity Incubation: The Innovation Spiral (Jan. ’24)
- Opportunity Incubation: Business Case (Sizing the Opportunity and Go / No Go check)(Feb. ’24)
- Product Delivery: Development Strategy (Mar. ’24)
- Product Delivery: Delivery Effectiveness (Apr. ’24)