Living on the edge of possible
Lessons in Innovation from the Italian school of design
At a recent innovation conference I had the pleasure of hearing Alberto Alessi talk about innovation. He was by far the most interesting and refreshing speaker at the conference, in part down to his humble style but mainly due to the way he and his company have approached innovation over the past 50 years. There was one thing in particular that stood out about the way they go about innovation and that is they embrace, not shy away from risk.
Fear, comfort and apathy are some of the biggest barriers to great innovation. They lead to safe, incremental choices not the disruptive breakthroughs everyone is searching for. But Alessi don’t allow themselves to be limited by these barriers, they are constantly searching for the ‘edge of possible’, the sweet spot of products which are right on the edge between what consumers can understand and desire and what is too radical and disruptive. The only way to achieve this ambition is to accept risk.
Over the years they have opened their studios to 100s of collaborators from artists to museums to architects and they are constantly looking for new perspectives and expertise that can influence their work. They have also made many products that just haven’t sold or worked but these aren’t brushed under the carpet. These ‘failures’ are celebrated as much as Anna G the bottle opener, as they have learnt from not denied their mistakes. Ultimately this led to one of their biggest disruptive insights; that it is possible for the poetic value of a kitchen utensil to be as big if not bigger than its functional value.
For many people who work in large blue-chip companies it would be easy to dismiss this as irrelevant to their brands, which is fine if you want to continue to fight the same competitors in the same way, year in year out. But to create truly disruptive innovations that change the way your category works then you have to be willing to take a risk.
That doesn’t have to mean investing a load of cap-ex in any old innovation. Regardless of how risky you are, there should always be a clear brand and commercial strategy and purpose behind any innovation project. But there are many small changes that can be made to the way you approach it, whether that be in who you collaborate with, where you look for insight or how you invest in an idea.
No matter what your category is, breakthrough innovation is possible, you just have to be willing to look over the edge of possible.
By Mark Killey, Senior Consultant