Breakthrough Innovations

Introducing Vycle:

Vycle is a human-powered vertical transport system for our expanding cities. It’s a cross between a cycle and an elevator. This enables us to use the concepts of riding a cycle but instead of going forward, we go up. This idea also combines the idea of allowing us to do a little bit of exercise over the course of the day, without having to take time out to exercise from our schedules. There is already a growing body of science that shows that non-intensive and consistent movement through out the day might be much more beneficial than intense workout for 45 mins and limited or no body movement for rest of the day.

vycle – urban vertical movement from Elena Larriba on Vimeo.

Introducing Encore Cistern:

Encore has created a toilet system that uses the water condensed from air-conditioning for flushing toilets. Currently, the condensed water from air conditioning is mostly wasted. This product has the potential to save millions of gallons of water and re-use it as the water for use in the toilets. You can find out how this product works here.

Introducing Koda from Kodasema:

Koda is a movable 150k£ home that can be moved and placed wherever there is an open space. It just requires a space of 30 sq. metres. It doesn’t require a foundation –> so can be moved from one place to a different place using trucks & it can be quickly set up. This could potentially be a great solution for affordable housing, without any compromise in the quality of the home from the inside. On the contrary, it looks and feels very good when we are in the home. You can take a virtual tour of the home here. You can also watch a video that shows how it looks and feels here.

So, what is common in all of these three very diverse products? What is it about these ideas that makes them unique and clearly innovative, with the potential of creating new markets, if executed well.

Multiple Problems addressed by a single solution:

Each one of these ideas combine two or more different challenges and address them together in one single solution. Most creative ideas that go one to become product or categories by themselves have similar applications.

  • Uber solved multiple challenges (hassle free transportation for one set of customers & creating a new income stream for another set of customers) with one solution.
  • AirBnB does the same as well (a different experience, potentially cheaper, better and a more intimate travel experience for the traveller and the ability to make some extra money for home owners).
  • Kickstarter does the same as well (a way for makers to find takers for their products by bye-passing gate-keepers and a platform for early adopters to find and fund cool ideas. Quirky does the same but in a different way.

And if we look at various other category creating products, there is a good likelihood that the product addresses multiple challenges with the single product.

Challenge Conventional Wisdom:

All of them break conventional wisdom in their respective spaces. It takes someone who challenges the conventional wisdom of the air conditioner industry to even think about the water that condenses as a result of air-conditioning and see that as a potential opportunity. Similarly, it takes someone who can challenge the conventional wisdom that cycles are supposed to move forward and back and not up and down. Similarly, it takes someone who can challenge the conventional wisdom that houses need to be built upon a strong foundation and it takes a lot of time to build a house.

In conclusion:

So, when we are looking for potential ideas to develop a product, it would be a good idea to either create constraints around solving multiple challenges at the same time. This forces us to go beyond the usual, boring ideas and allows us to explore truly creative solutions. This also makes it that much more difficult for potential competitors to replicate your solution.

PS: Here is a hilarious video that shows how the birthing of ideas:

Birth of an Idea from The Upthink Lab on Vimeo.

PS: PS: Here is a great TED Talk by Steven Johnson about “Where good ideas come from

What stops Us from Creating Breakthrough Innovations

Have you ever been part of an innovation project that started off with big ambitions and dreams about coming up with disruptive innovations which are expected to be game changing and end with a me-too or a watered down incremental innovation to an existing product category?

I have been part of a few such projects which start with much fanfare and later on become run-of-the-mill projects with no breakthrough’s to show for. I was always interested to understand why is this so?

Why do well-intentioned people, who have all the motivation and incentives to create breakthrough innovations, end up watering down their intentions and at best come up with an incremental innovation and at worst have nothing to show for their efforts?

I have found answers to this question in two different books:

  1. Orbit Shifting Innovation by Rajiv Narang & Devika Devaiah
  2. Creative Change by Dr. Jennifer Mueller

Rajiv and Devika argue that just like physical objects are subject to the earth’s gravitational pull, so are innovation efforts subject to “Mindset Gravity”. They argue that

“Mindset gravity creates gravity tunnels that condition and trap communities, organisations, and even countries and civilisations. It consciously and unconsciously blocks attempts to conceive, pursue, and sometimes even attempt orbit shifting innovations. ”

They have identified 4 layers of gravity that can hold people from creating breakthrough innovations that they so want to create:

Organisational Gravity:

Organisations accumulate gravity with frightening ease with success. In the pursuit of efficiencies, organisations quickly and easily want to create best practices based on their successes in the markets and these best practices then quickly become templates of how things are done around here and before you know it, anyone who attempts to do anything that doesn’t fit the template quickly becomes an outcast and in most cases, is either ostracised, institutionalised or let-go.

Industry Gravity:

All players in the industry slowly start to think alike. Every industry creates a belief system about what is possible and what is not for that particular industry. This could be the belief that they are highly regulated and hence creating breakthrough innovations is extremely difficult or that gaining market share is slow and a painful process or that their customers are not ready for any radical new products. This is the reason why industry defining innovations generally come from someone either at the fringes or someone from outside the industry. Examples of these new entrants creating new industry standards abound.

Country Gravity:

Every country has belief systems that can be limiting. For example, the Swiss are known to be the master craftsmen when it comes to precision watch manufacturing. China seems to be the country that is the fore-runner for manufacturing and Germans are known for their amazingly well-engineered cars. What this means is that if an Indian team wants to design a better car than a German car and manufacture it in India, there is already a lot of gravity that will pull them down, as the prevalent belief is that Indians cant design better cars than the Germans or better watches than the Swiss. It takes a brave leader to even try and break this gravity.

Cultural Gravity:

Organisations and employees in developing countries are usually in awe of their counter-parts from the developed countries. They have better infrastructures, better education and much more resources. All of this leads to the belief in the employees of developing countries that they can’t compete and out-innovate their peers from the developed countries. This is prevalent within MNC’s as well. The reverse is also true. The employees of the parent company of the MNC think that their counter-parts from the developing countries are not capable of creating better innovations than themselves. These are cultural belief systems that hold back entire cultures from attempting breakthrough innovations.

This is one set of reasons, why creating breakthrough innovations is extremely difficult.

Dr. Juergen Mueller, in her book – creative change offers another interesting reason why creating breakthrough innovation is difficult – she argues that while we might say that we want innovation and value creativity, we inherently are not wired to appreciate or even accept creative solutions that have the potential to lead to breakthrough innovations.

She argues

“Our ability to recognize and to embrace creative solutions is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. The sad irony is that we are more likely to reject an idea because it is creative than to embrace it”.

She also argues that lack of breakthrough innovations is not a lack of creative ideas problem but an idea evaluation problem. It is also the lack of the ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty that leads to predictable outcomes for innovation projects.

She has identified two kinds of mindsets that people who evaluate and fund these innovation projects could possess – one has the possibilities for leading us to breakthrough innovations and the other to cause the various levels of gravity that we discussed above.

– Why/Potential Mindset:

When the decision maker is in this mindset, they are looking at the potential of the idea and explore and understand what problems does the idea attempt to solve and try to understand the various aspects of the ideas. In this mindset, they are much more open to creative solutions that could potentially lead to breakthrough innovations, as they are much more tolerant to uncertainties.

– How/Best Mindset

When the decision maker is in this mindset, they are looking at the implementability of the creative solution, they are looking at the practicality of these solutions instead of looking at the potential. They are not open to ambiguity or uncertainties. They want ideas that they are sure about the organisations capability to implement. This typically leads them to fund ideas that are known and are incremental in nature rather than innovative in nature.


While both the books offer good ideas and solutions to overcome these biases in their respective books.

However, I think that before we look at implementing any of these ideas being suggested, it is critical for us to reflect and decide where is our limiting belief coming from. Once we have an answer to that question, we need to test this answer and only when we are convinced that we know what stops us, should we look at some of these creative solutions that the authors offer in their respective books.

And these should just be used as conversation starters within our teams. We should remember that each one of us and our teams are unique and what works for someone else might not work for us. So, it is important to personalise some of these ideas and not be limited by them but to truly work towards creating breakthrough innovations.

We need more breakthrough innovations today, than ever. And maybe, it is your team that will deliver it !