Grounded Innovation

The message of innovation guru Clayton is clear: companies that want to develop a breakthrough business should separate the development team from the running business. But is that really true? Lets compare the innovation inspiration with the energy from the sun. In nature, the sun’s energy is transformed into life when adsorbed by plants: by landing on the ground. Likewise, innovative ideas and visions can only become ‘alive’ through grounding. They need to be transformed into elements of daily life: part of the people’s habits, part of the new sales catalogue, part of the production schedule, part of an innovated business.  Innovation that does not land on the ground will never change the world of the people outside the innovation team, and as such is little more than a cloud with good intentions.  One may ask: how can innovation ever be disruptive if it needs to be grounded?  But the reality is the reverse: innovations can only ever be disruptive if they get traction with day-to-day routines of real life. Innovation energy can only flow when good ideas are transformed into real business. – when it gets grounded.

Let me try to illustrate the concept of ‘grounded innovation’ with my experience with two Dutch examples of radical modernizations of more than hundred-year old institutions, which affect my daily life. The first case is the ‘Fyra’ the high –speed connection between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which was developed by the National Railways (NS). The second case is NRC Next, the ‘easily accessible thin paper for 20-30 year olds’, which was launched by Quality Paper NRC. NRC Next was developed by a low-budget team with strong ties with the knowledge and constraints of the existing newspaper tradition, while the ‘Fyra’ was intentionally separated from the running railway business. NRC Next is a success, and inspired by the ‘Next experience’ the mother paper ‘NRC’ is also innovating its lay-out, content and language. NRC and NRC Next have one consumer interface, and customers can choose all kinds of combinations, for instance a NRC Next paper copy and a NRC digital subscription. The ‘Fyra’ story is different: the ‘Fyra’ is exploited separately from the NS. The fast train services between Rotterdam and Breda poorly relate to the ‘normal’ trains and reversely, the ‘normal’ NS does not benefit from the availability of a fast track and the experience with a new business model.  When the Fyra-trains are delayed, NS personnel cannot help, because they do not have access to the Fyra schedules. Contrary to NRC Next, the introduction of the Fyra has been a commercial disaster.

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