At Continuum, bridging the invention-innovation gap

How do you bring a great idea from the drawing board to the delivery room -- without diluting it along the way? Continuum CEO Harry West offers a peek into the innovation process for America's biggest companies.

How do you bring a great idea from the drawing board to the delivery room -- without diluting it along the way?

Harry West is chief executive of design and innovation consultancy Continuum. Its clients include leading consumer and technology brands such as American Express, PepsiCo, Procter and Gamble, Herman Miller and Sprint.

I spoke to him from his office in West Newton, Mass. about why companies look outside for innovation and what it takes to spark creativity in a corporate environment.

SmartPlanet: How did Continuum come to be?

HW: Continuum was founded in 1983 as a collaboration between two people -- Gianfranco Zaccai, who is trained as an industrial designer, and Youngmihn Kim, who is trained as an engineer. They had the vision that if they collaborated they would do better. It was called "Design Continuum," and they designed medical products primarily.

In 1988, they got a call from Reebok to see if they could apply their talents and apply it to a different kind of problem: take on Nike. They thought, "We can take it on." And we created the Reebok Pump for men. Close to a billion dollars a year. For a few years, Reebok was number one. It was transformative for them and for our company, too, because it showed us how to innovate more broadly.

We work in medical, industrial, technology and consumer products and services. I joined in 1994 -- I used to be a professor at MIT -- and I was totally fascinated by this business. I joined with the goal of setting up what's now known as the Design Strategy Group to better understand consumer needs and study people and figure out what it is that they want, and where there is an opportunity for innovation.

I think of myself as playing in both areas. I can bring the engineering side to bear on occasion, but generally I try to see life through the eyes of the consumer and through creative possibilities. The critical thinking skills of what is and isn't possible in an absolute way is engineering.

SmartPlanet: Innovation: what does it mean to you?

HW: Innovation is the creation and delivery of new value. Creation is an essential part of it -- it's got to be new. Delivery is an equally important part of it -- you have to get it to people so they can use it, take advantage of it in some way. It has to provide value, or else it isn't useful.

We're very clear about that in our company. We believe the way you get to innovation is by first studying people. Generally, we do not start with a technology. We start with a human challenge and look for ways to solve that, then search for the technology that would enable that to happen.

SmartPlanet: What's wrong with all of these products on the market? And by extension, what do they need you for?

HW: Obviously, they're doing something right -- they're hiring us. That's a key step. We've been innovating ourselves in the last year or so. I'm deeply empathetic to the challenge of innovating in your own company.

There's a couple of reasons they are coming to us. We are focused on design and innovation. It's difficult for even a large company to build the sort of capabilities that we have internally. I am totally delighted to work for Procter and Gamble as a consultant. I'm not sure I would want to work for them full-time. Not my thing. That's true of most of the people in this company. We love working for them, but we don't want to be married to them. And it's the same thing the other way around.

I see how there's a tension between the person leading innovation and the rest of the company, which is operations-driven.

So that's one reason. Secondly, as a company, our philosophy is always to put the interests of the consumer first. We see the world through their eyes. It's very difficult if you're working for a large corporation to see the world through the eyes of your customers. You become biased by the internal interests of your own company. You begin to see what you wish they would aspire to.

People are coming to us for our objectivity. We're not going to lose our job if what we recommend is counter to what the CEO said last week. The worst they can do is fire our contract, but we're not losing our jobs.

There's value in that. And our clients really respect that.

And thirdly, we can bring a depth of capability and scale to a problem that most clients can't. A degree of focus.

I was working with a very large bank in Europe last week and we're working on their business model and their website is a vital part of it. It become apparent to me that we had more people working on this in Boston than they had in their entire company.

SmartPlanet: Let's talk about that internal innovation you mentioned. It must be challenging to taste your own medicine.

HW: We applied some of the same techniques we learned. We spent a lot of time talking to our employees and our clients about what it is that they wanted.

Prototype. We made some announcements in November about changes of the structure in our company. We have been living with this a year. Test and iterate until it's right. The first version of our structure was not right -- it failed! We got it right the second time. We didn't tell anybody outside the company about this. We ran the experiments and tested.

It's very easy for a company to talk about change for a decade. I'm sympathetic to those who grab the opportunity and make the change, but you have to grab the opportunity and test it to make sure it worked.

SmartPlanet: Take me inside the innovation process, from idea to product.

HW: This process is happening at different levels at different places. I can talk about it in a very linear way, but I should also talk about it in a very organic, parallel way.

The basic linear process is that a company has a motivation to look outside for innovation. That motivation is generally two or three types -- it's ambition for some greater goal; it's "Oh, shit" -- something's gone wrong; and it's, "We're making a big bet and we think we're doing the right thing but let's get some outside help to look at this."

The fourth one is that somebody in a university or lab has developed a technology and it's there on a lab bench and it works -- there. But you can't actually sell it. And they want some help to go from the lab bench to the point of sale.

SmartPlanet: Last year, we interviewed MAYA Design's Mickey McManus about that gap.

HW: It's not clear that universities are the right groups to do commercialization. They're well set up to do core technology, but you need individual entrepreneurs to interpret that technology and make it creative to innovation.

An invention is not an innovation -- it may enable a future innovation. But until it delivers value, it's just an invention.

Then, people come meet with us and we spend time aligning. Often, the original pitch is different than what we end up doing. Often a company comes to you and says, "We want to design a new window." Well, why do you want to do that? Often it's because of losing market share. Alignment is really important -- it's a different framing of the problem.

The next phase is research. We are assuming that our clients have got the technology under control. Most don't have the same depth of understanding of consumers.

I do think Apple is a poor example in a lot of respects, because they design for themselves, but they happen to hit the sweet spot in the market. BMW is another example. Their employee base is their target market. For most companies, that's not the case.

We try to fill those gaps. We focus then on what the consumer is looking for: their aspirations, their dreams, their problems. We're trying to uncover an idea that solves their problems in a practical way and connects to their aspirations. If we can do that, we have a basis for innovation.

The next phase is to envision what that product or service is and how you would make it real. The reason I separate those is because sometimes when we envision, we trick the technology.

Sometimes you have to scale back your aspirations, but by and large if you have a clear picture of what you want that experience to be -- not how -- you're able to approach it.

Then we test that: qualitatively, with target consumers. Not do you like it, but does it solve the problem. We don't ask that because there's a lot of work to be done to make it appealing. It's called a resonance test.

We may go back and change things. We like to rapidly innovate here, whether a product or an entire store, an entire medical facility.

Then we work with the client to deploy that idea. And what they need to do to make it real. Sometimes we're the right company for that, sometimes we recommend other firms.

SP: Can you drop the ball in deployment?

HW: It can and it does. Sometimes the company tries to take a shortcut to take something to market more quickly. Sometimes we get it wrong. Innovation is a high-risk business. When we're starting completely from scratch, we probably succeed most of the time, but certainly not all of the time.

SmartPlanet: What are your most difficult challenges? What are the hurdles to innovation?

HW: One hurdle is that we're all human. Ultimately, it's very senior people that are going to make a decision on what to do or what not to do. Often, the most senior person is not representative of the target market. He's being asked to make a decision that does not resonate with him personally.

Another challenge is where the long-term solution cannibalizes the current company. It's very difficult for a company to do that. We know of many cases where the market is fundamentally changing in the long-run. In the short-run, they don't want to lose the business they're making money hand over fist with.

This is not a business problem. This is a human problem, as a species.

A third issue is the challenge that when you change your product or service, you have to change your organization, too. It becomes what's serving the organization, not the organization that serves the product or service.

SmartPlanet: The most rewarding projects are...?

HW: Our job is to make things obvious. Before the innovation happens, there was nothing there. After the innovation, it's so obvious that anybody could have thought of it. If it's not obvious, it's not a good idea.

SmartPlanet: It's a thankless job, isn't it?

HW: We get paid. And I love what I do. We're so excited to come to work because we're making life better for people. We only get to do the fun part.

In terms of success, some of our most rewarding engagements is when a senior person is really open to change. That could be because the company is in trouble, or because that person is very ambitious.

The work we did with Proctor and Gamble in creating the Swiffer would not have worked without [P&G chief innovation officer] Craig Wynett, because he was driven to make the idea succeed, not him succeed. I do think that is critical success. He is a remarkable person.

Having really deep understanding of the consumer. When I think of the work we did with Pampers -- a really mundane product -- it's based on a deep understanding of what mothers are about.

SmartPlanet: Do you think your work leaves a lasting effect with clients?

HW: Oh absolutely. Often you're working with an organization, not just a group of people. And often, they're teaching you back that innovation. We are delighted when our clients take our ideas and give them back to us. That to us is a sign of success.

Another reason for really rewarding work is where the opportunity is so great, so apparent, that all it took was some way to solve the technical challenge and you're there.

Working with Insulet, they had an idea to create a way to need insulin so that it would be invisible and not apparent to the person wearing the device so that they would forget about their condition for awhile. That was such a big idea, and we developed the Insulet Omnipod, a very small device that sticks to your belly or back using a hydrogel and inserts a [cannula] into your body so that your blood sugar level is very highly regulated. You can run in it, swim in it, shower in it, and in three days you throw it away and put on a new one.

Right now we're working with another company called Daktari [Diagnostics] where we take care of people with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. They invented a technology for tracking T-4 cells, an indicator of your health if you have AIDS. Instead of the person going into town to a lab -- which is not going to happen -- we can take the lab to the village to test people's health and give them almost real-time feedback.

That's what really turns our crank, when we get to do that. That's innovation -- that's real value.

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