The Innovation Blog

David Culton

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Two models for evaluating early innovation

Posted by David Culton on Oct 6, 2010 5:35:00 PM

A few weeks ago on this blog I posted "The "SNIFF" test - criteria for early innovation decision making".  This is a simple, but effective five criteria model for evaluating concepts early in the innovation process. Recently I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Jay Paap.  Dr. Paap is the founder of Paap Associates, Inc (PAI), and has been consulting to major companies in the field of innovation for 40 years. In his work, he has also dealt with the issue of client companies seeking to apply metrics or find some other useful criteria for making early stage decisions in innovation, and has a slightly different, but intriguingly similar model to offer.

Key to Rational Decision Making

As Jay Paap puts it, the key to rational decision making is to a) ask the right questions, b) seek the best data possible, which may or may not be quantifiable, c) involve a broad cross section of the organization - for quality and commitment d) use formal frameworks to guide collection, storage, analysis and sharing - be systematic in collection and e) use "informed judgment" to make the decision -- be intuitive.  He offers a six criteria decision model called NOMMAR.  I'll paraphrase his approach here, but to get the counsel direct from the author, visit


©2009 Jay Paap, Paap Associates

N: Customer Need? (someone will want it).  

  • Need versus wants/requests.  Is there a real current or future/emerging need for this.  Don't focus on the product, focus on understanding the need first.

O: Technology options (someone can meet the need)

  • Are there existing or emerging technologies within your firm, your industry or other industries that can meet the need?
  • Are there other organizations with similar problems?
  • The key is to focus on the problem/need, not the expected solution.

M: potential market?  (someone will pay)

  • Past innovation adoptions/analogs
  • Customer interactions
  • Be sure to realistically assess resistance

M: business model (someone could do it)

  • Models are "rules of the game" - independent of players
  • Look at past adoption trends for innovation
  • Consider analogs of approaches used in other industries
  • Look at both numbers and logic -- "I could see this being big"

A: realistic approach (we could do it)

  • Fit with three Rs: resources, risk, resistance
  • Consider all development options: traditional, corporate venturing/OI: internal ventures, partnering, aquisition, licensing, spinouts

R: Relevant (we should do it)

  • Fit with strategy
  • Fit with image
  • The key is to look at both what it does and what it prevents you from doing.

As I listened to Jay (yes, we had a lot of fun with that... Jay listening to Jay, etc.), I became excited by both what he was offering in NOMMAR as a simple and useful tool, as well as the validation it offered for our approach "SNIFF".  Two independent sources, both in the business for decades, arrive at very similar positions on a major need for innovators.

The similarities, SNIFF and NOMMAR:

SNIFF places Fit with Strategy as one key criteria.  NOMMAR uses relevance in the same way.

SNIFF uses Feasibility as a key criteria.  NOMMAR uses both "A realistic Approach (we could do it), and "O: Technology options" -- two ways of considering feasibility.

SNIFF uses Need as a key criteria.  NOMMAR not only has "N: customer need" as a criteria, but makes the point throughout to focus on the need, not the technology or solution.

SNIFF uses "Feel -- Gut Feel" as a key criteria.  NOMMAR doesn't have this per se, but throughout, Jay Paap stresses the use of "informed judgment".

One other piece I like about Jay's NOMMAR, and one that our SNIFF doesn't cover is the second "M" for business model.  We are also great believers in business model early in the innovation process.  SNIFF does not include it primarily because we use SNIFF at a point slightly earlier than when a business model is created.  We tend to use SNIFF to choose between dozens of business or product concepts to help decide which few will get the attention they need to envision a new business model.


Two useful models for evaluating early stage innovation thinking. Created by two different consulting firms who both see the same need in the market, created synergistic models that have decades of experience to back them up.  We (Jay Terwilliger and Jay Paap) hope you find them useful in your pursuit of innovation.

NOMMAR is ©2009 Jay Paap, Paap Associates and discussed with permission of Jay Paap.

SNIFF is ©2010 Creative Realities, Inc.

Topics: Innovation, criteria for innovation, decision-making, technical innovation, criteria

Early Innovation Decision-making and the 'SNIFF' test

Posted by David Culton on Sep 27, 2010 11:41:00 AM

Innovation clients frequently ask us how to make better decisions when pursuing breakthrough innovation.  Decision making in pursuit of breakthrough and transformational innovation is significantly different that which is for sustaining or incremental innovation (where frames of reference, past benchmarks, etc. exist).  There are five key decision points along the journey.  At each point, beliefs, assumptions, SWAGS, etc. will get tighter, and more useful.  

Today I'm going to address the second decision point.  Once you have had full range of beginning ideas, and selected a manageable number to fully describe and turn in concept outlines, how should you decide which ones to take into a more rigorous process of creating "Business Visions"?  The creation of Business Visions involves significantly more thought, time and effort.  It involves an escalation of resource commitment, and therefore is deserving of some thoughtful selections from within the existing range of possibilities.  And it is early in the game.  So what criteria to use?

SNIFF test

The Creative Realities "SNIFF" Test©.

Five criteria should be considered at this stage.  All five require the use of judgment, rather than any real metrics.  Because for "breakthrough" innovation, there is no frame of reference, no empirical data, etc.  Here are the criteria to consider, we recommend using a 5 point scale to make judgmental evaluations of each:

Strategy:  How well does this fit with our strategy and further our Vision?

Need: How well does this address an important consumer/customer need?

Impact: Opportunity Size. Have we envisioned a sizable enough market with money to spend? 

Feasibility:  Can it be done technically within our timeframe?

Feel:  Most important -- What does your “Educated Gut” say?

As you consider these criteria, it is easy to simply select those few that have the highest average ratings on these criteria.  But before you do, look at what the ratings are telling you.  Used properly, they can identify the key areas of strength and weakness.  Before you make your decision, consider each criteria and ask yourself "How could I make this concept stronger in this criteria?  And how would that affect the other criteria?  Problem-solve your way to the strongest form of the idea before you make the decisions.  Then make them in an informed manner.

Take a "SNIFF".  What does it tell you?

SNIFF Test ©2010 Creative Realities, Inc.

Topics: Innovation, creative problem solving, breakthrough innovation, leadership, strategic innovation, Strategic Goals, criteria for innovation, decision-making, defensible SWAG, approximate thinking, developmental thinking, implementation, execution, criteria

When cars poop #2 -- Innovation skills

Posted by David Culton on Sep 20, 2010 11:13:00 PM

Continuing the conversation about “When Cars Poop” which I introduced in my blog on (8/30), my goal is to help people think differently, more innovatively, and to have some fun.  Along the way, we’ll introduce some innovation tools and skills.


The Challenge:

Today’s internal combustion engine is a pretty simple device.  Basically, a small electrical system creates a spark in a chamber where gasoline and air have been compressed and vaporized, igniting the mixture, creating an explosion.  The force of the explosion pushes a piston creating linear force, which then pushes a connecting rod that is attached to a camshaft which, as it turns converts linear motion to rotational motion and torque.  The camshaft distributes this rotational force to the wheels through the drivetrain, making the car move.  Great.  So the question is, how to turn wheels using a different system?


Today, with the advent of electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles, the systems are becoming more complex, adding significantly more powerful batteries, more sophisticated generators and electric motors to the mix.  Especially interesting are the multiple ways energy may be harvested and put to use in these new propulsion systems.  So as the car moves, it can also spin generators to supplement electrical power or recharge batteries.


Innovation as a skill.

We are often asked if creativity, and by extension, innovation, is a talent or a skill.  The implication being that if it is a talent, it is a natural competency and if it is a skill it is something that can be trained/learned.  The answer is that it is both.  There is no question that some people are inherently more naturally creative thinkers than others.  But that doesn’t mean that a) they are as good as they can be, or b) that others can’t learn how to significantly improve their abilities.


Language as a stimulator of creative thinking (skill):

Language can be one of the most important tools for innovation because it has the power to stimulate us to do things or think things differently from the very beginning.


In our business we there are several key phrases that we know have the power to open minds to think in new ways.  Basically, they are “permission-givers.”  The words direct us and give us permission to think more openly. 


“I wish…”  The power of wishing.  If you are seeking a new solution, new idea, etc., don’t start off right away thinking you have to have the idea.  If you do, it will never make it out of your head.  Because looking for an idea forces you to have a good or at least reasonable one right away… and most of us are too self-censoring for that.  Creative minds allow themselves to explore a range of possibilities rather than narrowing down to the good ones right away.  So try just wishing for a while.  Then look at your wishes, and play with the ones you like best, turning them into ideas.  Simply ignore the rest for now.


When you say or think “I wish…” you are acknowledging that you don’t know if it is possible right now, and in the beginning, you don’t really care – it’s just a wish!  So be wishful, and let your wishes build upon each other or those from others. 


“How to…” Two powerful words for innovators.  There are always problems along the road to innovation.  Problems or challenges with the basic idea, or with implementation, etc.  If you allow yourself or others to say: “That won’t work because it’s too expensive.” Or “We don’t have enough people to do that,” etc., you are doomed.  Evaluative statements of “fact” may be correct given a particular viewpoint or aspect of an idea.  And if nothing changes, we might have a genuine problem.  But if we accept the definitive statement, we immediately cut off any chance for idea to become a success.  Rather than make evaluative declaratives, change your language to “How to… make it less expensive; do it with fewer people” etc. 


See how the power of language changes the outcome?  Instead of either immediately accepting the declarative problem as an idea killer, or of debating the relative merits of the declaration with the person who offered it, “How to…” acknowledges a hurdle and invites everyone, including you to think about ways the problem can be overcome!  And 9 times out of 10, a solution will emerge.  It may change the idea a bit, but that’s okay.


Let’s try it:


“I wish for a car with no internal combustion mechanism – one that needs no gasoline for fuel.”  Okay, first thing that comes to mind is an electric car.  So let’s expand the wish:  “I wish for cars that have no dependence on burning fossil fuels.”  Right now, most of our electric power comes from utilities that burn coal to create electricity.  So if this wish is to come true, it’s no fair plugging your car into the grid to recharge! 


Here’s my beginning thought:  Create a steam engine that used a bioreactor to create the heat that made the steam. 


I’m thinking a combination of a bioreactor to create heat, with steam as a significant propulsion aspect, supplemented by electricity much the same as in current hybrid technology.  It's basically, a hybrid without gasoline, eliminating the need for internal combustion of fossil fuels – using oil for lubricants only.


What do you think?  How would you make this happen?  What new technologies might enable this?


Here are a few thought starters.  I happen to be helping my mother-in-law replace her 60+ year-old steam heating system.  We have also recently worked with a major national manufacturer of water heaters.  In doing so, I’ve learned a bit about advances in steam heat, heat exchangers, nano-materials, insulating materials, etc. 


Steam boilers for home heating systems have become much smaller and much more efficient than they were 60-80 years ago.  Better heat exchangers, better combustion systems, better insulation, all contribute to smaller, more efficient steam boilers.  Imagine where we would be if Stanley (and his Steamer) had won out over Ford (with his gasoline engines!).  It’s not a perfect idea, but it will be fun to play with until one of you offers a better idea.  Here’s some of the “problems” we will need to solve:


1)    Problem:  That won’t work because everyone knows that steam engines burn fossil fuels to generate steam.  CHANGE THAT: 

  1. How to make steam without creating the heat from burning fossil fuels?

2)    Steam takes too long to build up energy.  You’ll be sitting in your car for a long time waiting for the steam to be ready to drive the wheels!  CHANGE THAT:

  1. How to generate steam instantaneously?
  2. How to propel the car while waiting for the steam to build up?


Here are some cool new technologies that might help us find some of the solutions


  • Ultra capacitors as an energy supplement – store electricity very efficiently and release it powerfully.
  • Neurojets for safe combustion with high performance
  • Heat exchangers made of non-conventional materials that handle much hotter fluids
  • Micro-channel heat exchangers for less weight, smaller size, more efficiency
  • Nano-fluids to enhance heat transfer and nano particles to neutralize water contaminants.
  • Aerogels to reduce size and weight while retaining insulation capability


That’s it for today.  Love to hear your comments, suggestions, and offers on where to go from here.

Topics: critical ideation skills, creative thinking, Innovation, strategic innovation, creative problem solving skills, brainstorming, creative thinking skills, approximate thinking, sustainability, technical innovation

The other side of innovation

Posted by David Culton on Sep 11, 2010 7:20:00 PM

41M1zXjq cL resized 600

Mark Gallagher of Blackcoffee suggested I take a look at this new book by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, and I'm glad I did.  Vijay and Chris are associated with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.  Vijay a professor and Chris an innovation speaker and consultant who is also on the faculty at Tuck.

This is a book written for leaders of innovation, primarily those who seek its pursuit from within existing business structures.  What I love about this book is that academia is finally waking up to some of the realities of the innovation challenge for management of existing businesses.  Vijay and Chris admit that it simply hasn't been studied well enough by the B-schools until strategy moved from teaching would-be managers how to manage the status quo to the fact change is inevitable (and on an incredible pace) and that therefore strategy must be about leading change - creating the future -- "Strategy as innovation."

While there are many excellent points made in this book and a bonanza of tips, myths, challenges, etc., there are three overriding premises that resounded with the nearly 20 year business innovationist/practitioner in me:

1. The major challenge in innovation is not in creating ideas.  Ideas are creativity.  Innovation is about successfully implementing ideas.  (I would point to the definition of innovation we have developed over time:  “Business innovation is the process of envisioning and successfully implementing new ways of doing anything that creates value for an enterprise and its customers.”  So total agreement here.

2. Succeeding at implementing innovation is especially challenging for existing organizations.  Vijay and Chris call the existing business the “Performance Engine.”  And they make a very good case for the major challenges for innovation efforts presented by Performance Engines.  Culture, competition for resources, lack of understanding the challenges, are but a few of them. 


As my partner Mark has consistently pointed out, we’ve all known this for a long, long time.  Machiavelli had it right back in 1514 when he said:

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who would profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have laws in their favour, and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who does not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

~Niccolo Machiavelli

But for some reason, business leaders haven’t really understood this.  Too many have felt that if they and their organization’s were good at running existing business, they ought to be able to take ideas and implement them with the same excellence – wrong!

3. To succeed, the leaders of innovation have to develop new skills that allow the innovation effort to work synergistically with the Performance Engine. 

If you are an innovation leader, facing challenges in succeeding within your organization, this is a great, informative read.  I recommend it. 

Topics: Innovation, leadership, strategic innovation, strategy, growth, implementation

Meet Art Fry, innovationist and inventor of Post-it® notes

Posted by David Culton on Sep 5, 2010 9:07:00 AM

fry main 1 190
If you've been around innovation for any amount of time, you have probably heard, and maybe told, some story about the invention of Post-it® notes.  I've used the story as an example about perseverance in innovation; the importance of passion for an idea; about leveraging an accidental discovery; about all sorts of things.  Yet I've never met Art Fry and have only repeated stories I've heard.  So I was very excited when a friend of mine (Farrell Calabrese) from a client of ours (Eastman Chemical) sent me a link to their innovation lab website.  They have put together interviews, stories, videos, etc. from over 20 designers and innovators.  Interesting information on design, on sustainability, and in this case, the story of Post-it® notes from the man who invented them.  I found it to be a very interesting interview about a range of topics and issues related to innovation.  I hope you all have a chance to read it and get the real story on one of the great inventions of our time.  You can find it at

Topics: breakthrough innovation, approximate thinking, connection making, developmental thinking

When Cars Poop, Exploring a New 'Techonomy'

Posted by David Culton on Aug 30, 2010 6:37:00 PM

What if Henry Ford got it wrong?

I’m an innovationist.  I make my living helping companies innovate.  Most of my blogging will be about practical tips and techniques from a practitioner’s experiences on the road to innovation.  This thread will be different.  This is intended to be thought provoking about sustainability, technology, technological roadmaps, techonomy ( look for the video "techonomy – the philosophy"), sustainable innovation, and other related subjects.

Let’s begin with a definition of innovation:  “Business innovation is the process of envisioning, and successfully implementing new ways of doing anything that creates value for a company or it’s customers.”

The Absurd Wish:  For the purposes of this blog thread, I’d like to have some fun, and hopefully intrigue you to thinking more about sustainability and the role of innovation, by beginning with what many will call an “absurd wish.”  In a nutshell, my wish is for a world where “cars poop.”  Before you completely bail out on me, consider this quote from Albert Einstein… “If at first an idea does not seem absurd, there’s no hope for it.” 

That’s good advice for innovator’s seeking really breakthrough or transformational innovation.  If all we wish for are things we can understand or envision today, we simply won’t be pushing very far from what is easy, feasible and incremental.

So I wish for a world where cars poop.  Why would I wish that?  Let’s go back to Henry Ford.  Henry is credited with saying “If I asked them what they wanted they would have said ‘faster horses’.”  That statement is commonly used to help people understand that in talking with customers or consumers, you have to look well beyond what they say and can wish for.  Most of us are grounded in what we know, and find it difficult to see very far beyond that.  That’s true, and a helpful thought for most Voice of the Customer (VOC) activities. 

You get what you play for.  So what if Henry did get it wrong? What if we look at “Faster Horses” differently.  In Henry’s time, the existing paradigm was that most locomotion, most vehicles were based on horse power (funny how we still use that term today).  The horse was the “engine” of locomotion; the carriage or cart was the vehicle.  So if you wanted to go faster, you needed a faster horse.  Henry’s answer was to break the paradigm and make vehicles based on the internal combustion engine more useful and available to the “common man.”  That's what he "played for" and it worked well for him, and for a long time, it worked well for everyone.  But today, all that internal combustion is contributing to a range of little issues like pollution, global warming, tensions over oil resources, etc.

Something to think about:

Maybe we should have, or should begin to play for something different.  What if we look at “faster horses” differently?  What if we rephrase that to “biological engines.”  Steam engines were also at play during those times.  But they quickly became relegated to trains and ships.  The automotive industry pursued a century of innovation around creating motion by igniting fuel oil.  What if that century had focused on creating more efficient, smaller steam engines?  And what if rather than burning coal, or oil, etc., the innovation roadmap had been on the road to biological reactions that cause enough heat to create steam?  Where would we be today?  Think about it.  I’ll share some new technologies later that might hold some of the answers.

Topics: Innovation, creative problem solving, breakthrough innovation