What is innovation? Before you read on, pause for second and think about your answer…..

How easy did you find it come up with a definition? And how prominent was new technology and new methodology in your answer?…….

Our business discourse is dominated by talk of ‘disruption’ and ‘transformation’. So many of us feel we have an intuitive understanding of what innovation is and what it can do. But when we venture beyond the buzzwords we find that a complete definition remains rather elusive. Even the most casual review of the innovation literature reveals as many models or types of innovation as there are academic experts and consultancies practicing the discipline.

Here is a quick summary of the overlapping typologies I turned up from my bookshelf and a quick Google search while writing this piece:

-Technology Innovation: the adoption of new technology as the ‘push and pull’ of driving change

-Research and Development Innovation: normally narrowly focussed on product innovation and developing intellectual property

-Operational Innovation: focusses on achieving a step change in the speed and efficiency of processes and the way that work is delivered to clients

Red Ocean Innovation: red ocean innovation focuses on incremental changes to compete in crowded existing markets (the ocean is red with blood)

-Blue Ocean Innovation: blue ocean innovation focusses on the creation of new markets and industries not in existence today—the ocean is blue because new demand is created rather than fighting for diminishing marginal returns in existing markets (see also business model innovation below)

-Management Innovation: is about challenging hard wired industry beliefs, culture, conventions and mental models- see Gary Hamel

-Design Thinking– emphasises human centricity and a culture of learning focussed on questions, not answers. see Idea Couture- Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation

-Service Design: essentially Design Thinking applied specifically to innovation in services and user experience- see This is Service Design Thinking

-Business Model Innovation-is focused on changing the dynamics of the industry- creating new revenue streams and new markets- see Business Model Generation

So, if you struggled with my question at the top of the page, take comfort in the fact that there simply isn’t an easy definition of innovation. In fact, there is so much rich and diverse thought available on innovation that anybody who thinks there is an easy definition probably hasn’t understood the question…..

However, the 4Ps framework developed by John Bessant and Joe Tidd  reduces this complexity into 4 broad ‘directions of change’:

Product innovation – changes in the things (products/services) which an organisation (or industry) offers

Process innovation – changes in the ways in which products and services are created or delivered

Position innovation – changes in the context in which the products/services are framed and communicated

Paradigm innovation – changes in the underlying mental models which shape what the organisation does

Innovations are then further categorised as ‘incremental- doing what we do better’ or radical- ‘doing something completely different’. Whether you are an end user, research buyer or research provider the 4Ps is an accessible and precise framework for interrogating the true nature of innovation and scope of strategic ambition and vision in your business.


4 Directions of Change


So, where would you place your business or the market research industry in general on this map? What is the balance between product, process, positional and paradigm innovation? How much of the innovation you see would you characterise as genuinely radical or merely incremental?

There is definitely a lot of cool stuff going on in market research right now. Everyday digital transformation offers us new data streams and opportunities to improve the research experience for respondents and clients. However, I believe the 4P framework highlights an innovation fallacy in market research. Scratch below the veneer of the technology arms race that is gripping NewMR and you find a relatively narrow innovation landscape focussed on incremental improvements to products and processes. Our tech obsession primarily addresses clients operational/functional needs (faster, cheaper, etc.) And there is real strategic risk in this.

We are sleepwalking into further commoditisation of our industry under the guise of innovation. But, more importantly, the arms race distracts us from confronting the deeper ‘paradigm’ questions that clients have around the future purpose and value of market research.

If you are not convinced, use the 4P framework to consider whether the current scope of innovation activity in market research is addressing the challenge laid down by Keith Weed from Unilever in Impact magazine in October 2014:

‘It’s moving toward inspiration and provocation. We need more breakthroughs and transformational actions, so market research can’t be passive….Researchers also need to understand people, rather than treating them purely as consumers of products…

The greatest thing about digital and technology transformation is that it is democratic- anyone can get their hands on the tech. In our rapidly converging marketplace the technology only gives us permission to play. But Keith Weed is asking for a paradigm shift. Genuine competitive advantage comes from having better ideas and greater vision- and it’s people who have the ideas and vision- not the tech.

Unfortunately as David Burkus notes in his Portable Guide to Leading Organisations ‘changing certain parts of an organisation is easy, changing people is hard’. That’s precisely why the tech is so tantalising….. But the tech can’t help with the biggest transformational challenges facing market research

As more clients follow Unilever in repurposing their businesses, demands for a step change in the support they receive from market research will continue to grow.  They are demanding genuine creative partnership- the kind they get from other partners that are converging on the research market. So we need to confront the innovation fallacy and get comfortable with paradigm innovation.