“The level of abstraction determines a group’s ability to move between strategies and tactics. Too high, and the group becomes lost in the detail; too low, and the group is unable to effectively navigate.”
Director of Industrial Design
Johnson & Johnson
My friend and former J&J colleague, Stuart Morgan, is one of those rare people who can flex between the highest level of abstraction and the smallest details of any particular problem. He is a whiz, and it is hard to keep up with him. For innovators and innovation managers, this is a skill worth developing and adding to your company’s innovation competency model. Here’s why.
To be most successful at applying an innovation method, a team needs to determine the right level of granularity over the problem. Selecting different levels of innovation resolution will yield completely different innovative opportunities. Changing the resolution could yield interesting new adjacent market spaces. The level you target will also affect how you use an innovation method like S.I.T..
Here is an example. Suppose you designed and manufactured commercial aircraft. The natural starting point would be to innovate an airplane. At this level of resolution, our initial component list might be:
- fuel tanks
- landing gear
Using this component list, we would apply one of the five innovation templates of the S.I.T. method to create new “virtual products.” But the component list changes if we “zoom down” a level and innovate just one component, say the fuselage. Our new list becomes:
- outer skin
- passenger seats
- overhead bins
We could continue to zoom down further. We could innovate just the passenger seat, for example, or continue even further down to the seat belt.
Changing the resolution is not always zooming down. We can also “zoom up.” For example, we could innovate a level up from an airplane to innovate “ramp operations.” The component list might be:
- refueling equipment
- air conditioning
- baggage loaders
- food service equipment
- ramp markings
Continuing from here, we zoom up to: airport operations to flight operations to air traffic control system to aviation industry and to global tourism. Think of resolution as turning the magnification dial on a microscope. We change the power from 2x, 10x, 100x, and so on.
How do you know where to start? Listen to the voice of the market – your customers and competitors. Customers will tell your where they are most frustrated or concerned. Your competitors will signal what direction they are taking their innovation. Also use trend spotting to see where the most change is occurring. Finally, use value chain analysis. This will tell you where to innovate to capture more margin.