Book Review: Looking at Innovation through The Wide Lens

The Wide Lens:  What Successful Innovators See That Others Miss by Ron Adner.  Portfolio/Penguin Press, 2013.  267 + x pages.  US$17.00 (paperback).

Chemical engineers face a variety of job assignments. In all cases, however, we are challenged to continuously improve processes and to offer innovative solutions. Ron Adner’s book, The Wide Lens, helps us to view innovation solutions from a different, broader perspective.

Innovation, the author explains, is far more sophisticated than simply developing a new technology in an R&D lab.  It is also more complicated than asking customers what they want. Successful innovation depends on integrated design, development, and delivery of products and services through an “innovation ecosystem.”  Any partner in the value chain who does not “buy-in” to the innovation effort can put the entire project at risk.

Engineers will enjoy the many case studies that Adner uses to illustrate co-innovation risk and adoption chain risk. In these stories of the run-flat tire and initial attempts to commercialize 3G telephony, we learn that customer demand and engineering excellence are not enough to warrant market success.

Instead, R&D teams need to consider an “innovation ecosystem map” (Chapter 4) to identify key roles of vendors, distributors, and customers in order to successfully deliver a new product to an end-user. Investing in innovation is described in Chapter 5, in which we learn, unsurprisingly, that only the weak link in the value chain can truly transform an iffy proposition into a successful innovation ecosystem. Similarly, Chapter 6 discusses innovation timing and the business implications of first-to-market.

Finally, Part III of The Wide Lens offers tips on converting, growing, and expanding successes. A key case study of Apple’s phenomenal new product successes ties together earlier concepts and ideas of the innovation ecosystem map, value chain, and market timing.  (Apple has rarely been in a first-to-market position with new technologies.)

Chemical engineers working in R&D, product development, and continuous improvement will enjoy reading Ron Adner’s The Wide Lens.  Each of us is impacted by innovation today and learning how to improve the odds of success for both internal and external customers is a foundational skill. Applying a “wide lens” approach to problem-solving is beneficial, regardless of an engineer’s specialty.

In what ways does your work as a process engineer require a “wide lens” approach to recognize innovation and other risks?