Professor Paola Criscuolo tells us why innovation is a tricky business and delves into how the pandemic has affected R&D
Understanding how companies successfully innovate is a challenge. We know which products businesses choose to develop because we see them on the shelves, and we find out which are a hit because they get everybody talking – and we might even buy them ourselves.
But what about the ideas that end up in the bin? These can tell us as much about the process of innovation as the success stories and are key to helping other companies be better innovators, enabling them to save time and money, as well as achieve a competitive advantage.
Paola Criscuolo, Head of the Department of Management & Entrepreneurship and Professor of Innovation Management at Imperial College Business School, made it her business to go behind the scenes, looking into which projects one company selected and rejected.
What she found was managers with diverse backgrounds are more likely to support breakthrough ideas, meaning that companies that have a lot of novel ideas in the bin may lack the diversity of thought to appreciate them. This demonstrates that diversity is not only important in generating innovation but equally integral to ensuring breakthrough innovations are selected for further development.
The ideas that end up in the bin… can tell us as much about the process of innovation as the success stories
“Innovation is fundamental, and so far, research has focused on idea generation and the factors conducive to more radical ideas.
“What I have done in my research is to examine the idea selection process,” she says, adding that this is where she believes her research has made an “important contribution to innovation management”.
And despite innovation being integral to all businesses, in certain industries it is “very hard for companies to remain innovative”, says Professor Criscuolo, identifying technological progress as one of the reasons why this is a challenge.
“The continuous flow of technological innovation means it can become very hard for companies to keep abreast of all the developments.”
Translating, integrating and championing
One way companies try to keep up with the most recent developments in technology is by having a dedicated team of technology scouts in centres of excellence around the world, such as Silicon Valley.
These scouts are dedicated to spotting the next big idea, digital solution or unicorn startup. The problem is that it isn’t just about working out potential collaborators or equity investment opportunities; organisations should also be thinking about how these new technologies or solutions can be integrated into, and leveraged, by the rest of the company.
“Scouts are not going to be the ones translating, integrating and championing the new technology inside the organisation,” she says. “Their job ends once they’ve made their discovery.”
Managers with diverse backgrounds are more likely to support novel ideas
Through her research, she has found that there are benefits to using people who are involved in both the discovery, as well as its integration, citing the UK government’s flawed rollout of the coronavirus (COVID-19) test and trace app as an example.
“The NHS Innovation Lab was not involved in the negotiation with the companies that were supposed to develop the app on behalf of the British government, so the process didn’t involve the people who were actually going to be using the app in the field,” she says.
The pandemic vs. innovation
Fortunately, the pandemic hasn’t only highlighted missed opportunities in innovation, it has also raised some interesting questions around its future. On the one hand, it has created a lot of opportunities for change, giving employees in some sectors more autonomy because they aren’t monitored as closely while they work from home. This could be a potential catalyst for creativity.
At the same time, it has created challenges. One of the great sources of innovation is cross-pollination: working in a multidisciplinary team. Once you divide people up, you no longer have the group, instead you have the individuals – then it becomes more difficult to develop new ideas, Professor Criscuolo explains.
Starting out with a degree in economics, she developed an interest in how multinational companies transfer knowledge, which led to her pursuing studies in innovation and innovation management.
She is also an enthusiastic supervisor, which she attributes to growing up in a family of teachers and her “love of talking”, and regularly takes on PhD students.
"PhD students have to listen to you so it’s perfect! I find it very rewarding to teach and it’s interesting to see how my students take on board my suggestions and comments. I recently published a paper with someone I previously supervised. So, in cases like that, it’s rewarding for me and for the student.”
But academia isn’t her only passion: in her spare time, Professor Criscuolo plays the saxophone, swims competitively, enjoys foraging for mushrooms and cooking.