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Innovation Variety: Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation

November 22, 2013


Larry Keeley, Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn, and Helen Walters, innovation consultants at Doblin, created quite a stir when earlier this year they published a book entitled Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs. The reason that the book received so much attention is that it didn’t use the common circus tent approach to innovation (i.e., trying to apply general rules to all types of innovation). Because so many books have treated innovation with the big tent approach, the authors believe that a lot of myths have been created about innovation and they are concerned that those myths “are exceptionally hard to eradicate.” They assert that their approach offers a new framework for fostering innovation. They claim that their organizing system offers “an underlying structure and order governing what works and what fails.” Some of their views are new and some are old ideas offered in a different way. For example, many innovation gurus have observed that there is natural tension between organizational structure and a culture of innovation. Organizations exist to standardize and maintain business practices while a culture of innovation is aimed at shaking things up. That’s why the authors claim “nearly every organization conspires to kill [innovation].” Near the end of their book they offer “principles on how to build an enterprise innovation system that fosters, rewards, and delivers results.”


The authors break down their ten types of innovation into four categories: Finance; Process; Offerings; and Delivery. Creativity gurus have for years recommended looking at a problem from different perspectives if you want to develop an innovative solution. Keeley, Pikkel, Quinn, and Walters, however, believe that the journey towards innovation needs to begin with definite starting point that aims you down the right path. As Alice learned in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you are going any path will take you there. Doblin posted a graphic on Slideshare that shows the framework and provides some business examples.


In an article excerpted from the book and published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the authors indicate that origins of the book really began back in 1998. [“The Discovery of the Ten Types of Innovation“] They write:

“In 1998 we decided to see what, if anything, successful innovations had in common. In doing so, our goal was to see if we might create a version of the periodic table of the elements for innovation. We gathered up nearly 2,000 examples of the then best innovations: Dell’s computer business; Toyota’s production system; Walt Disney’s character franchises; Gillette’s shaving business; oversized tennis racquets from Prince; the way you could step out of your Hertz rental car and get a receipt instantly from someone using a gizmo hanging from his belt; and many others. We even included historical successes, such as the Ford Model T and the US national highway system (yes, that was once innovative, not just snarled with traffic). Then, we analyzed everything and broke down the innovations using pattern recognition and complexity management techniques. We worked to demystify our own work as innovators. And we labored to document our practices and their outcomes. In 2011, we undertook a similar effort to test and refresh our analysis, ensuring that our work was still valid in the very different business environment. From all of this empirical analysis emerged the framework that forms the heart of this book.”

Larry Keeley, one of the book’s authors, states, “One of the few clichés about innovation that’s actually true is the one that says necessity is the mother of invention.” [“How to Demystify Innovation and Build Breakthroughs,” PSFK, 9 June 2013] He goes on to explain how the ten types of innovation can be used analytically. He explains:

“Using the Ten Types of Innovation analytically, we have specifically identified more than 100 generic innovation tactics — modular ways to achieve each type of innovation (these are our objects). … We found ways to arrange these tactics in sophisticated combinations that are robust enough to build integrated innovations (these are our subroutines). Put together, these are plays in a breakthrough innovation playbook. These plays illustrate how innovation can be driven by using smart tactics in surprising combinations. We’ve deconstructed some archetypal examples showing how they work, and reveal how you can construct a similar breakthrough of your own.”

Keeley’s article contains a large graphic showing their “Tactics Overview.” If you are interested in innovation, poring over the overview will be well worth your time. Keeley concludes:

“Innovating with discipline demands a sense of what you’re doing and why. Remember two critical innovation questions: “How ambitious do we need to be?” and “How can we innovate differently?” Now you’re ready to combine specific types and tactics to fuel your mission. While selecting a random array of them is one approach, it helps to examine similar solutions to the one you’re trying to build. Thinking this way is similar to what great professional teams and coaches do all the time. Athletes drill plays over and over — until they can execute each one flawlessly. Coaches read situations in the heat of the game — to select the right play at any given moment from a full team playbook. Which play will you call to outflank or overpower your competition?”

In article published in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the authors wrote, “We all know that innovation is about being creative, right? Well, not so fast. The more you try to treat innovation as a science, the more you discover that this widespread assumption is nonsense, a shibboleth, a dangerous myth.” [“The Science of Innovation,” 7 May 2013] They explain:

“Imagine that innovation is really about discipline, not creativity, and that when treated as an important topic by scientists, it is—for the first time—giving up its secrets. This is true only if we root out pervasive myths and substitute effective, robust methods. We characterize innovation into 10 types. We have used this method for many years to diagnose industries and categories (to see how innovative they are now); analyze current innovations (to see how likely they are to succeed); and synthesize better innovations (to foster bigger and better breakthroughs). This approach makes it easier to create breakthroughs. Indeed, the rule of thumb is that any team that uses five or more types when it innovates can produce game-changing innovations that amaze customers and confound competitors. We have been deconstructing dozens of remarkable innovations to show how they work and then lay out the tools and thought processes you can use to make one of your own. These innovation types can be easily taught and adapted.”

In other words, the authors believe that anyone can be creative. I think they are a bit too dismissive about the importance of creative people. People like Steve Jobs create entirely new industries and deserve the recognition they receive. But people like that are rare and that’s why Keeley, Pikkel, Quinn, and Walters are so insistent that discipline is important for companies that want to be innovative. Even Apple under Steve Jobs had to demonstrate that discipline.

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