The toy company Mattel is well known for its Barbie doll brand. They need a constant stream of internal innovations to build on this success. So Ivy Ross, Senior VP of Girls Toy Design set up something she called Project Platypus. The idea is based on the description of a platypus as an uncommon mix of different species. The 12 members of the project team are a rotating group drawn from different functions in the company. They join the project for three months and work intensely and creatively. Operating in a dramatically different environment, they use external stimuli, study children at play and have enormous freedom to generate and test ideas. The participants enjoy the experience and take their new creative skills back to their departments. The results have been startling with many new products and reduced time to market. As Ivy Ross says, ‘Designers are not the only people who can create toys. If you put a bunch of creative thinkers in the right environment and drop the job titles, you’ll discover amazing creativity.’[i]
To develop winning products, Samsung, the Korean electronics company isolates artists and techies for months on end. Because daily routines can interrupt the flow of great ideas, Samsung segregates development teams in its VIP (Value Innovation Programme Centre). Product planners, designers, programmers, and engineers are asked to outline the features and design of new products such as the company’s mainstay flat-screen TV. Department heads pledge to keep them posted there until they have completed the assignment.
The facility is a sort of boiler room where people from across the company brainstorm day after day — and often through the night. Guided by one of 50 “value innovation specialists,” they study what rivals are offering, examine endless data on suppliers, components, and costs, and argue over designs and technologies. Every step of the way, team members drew what Samsung calls “value curves.” These are graphs that rank various attributes such as picture quality and design on a scale of 1 to 5, from outright bad to excellent. The graphs compare the proposed model with those of rival products and Samsung’s existing TVs.[ii]
By deliberately forcing the mixing of project teams and removing distractions Mattel and Samsung speed up the innovation process. People in the teams are encouraged to be creative and to break the rules. They focus on getting the innovation moving. And they bring co-operation, enthusiasm and diversity to bear on the problem. An incubator can overcome the problems of corporate inertia and inter-departmental fault-lines by concentrating the resources of people, skills and time needed to make deliver new products.
[i] Salter, C (2002), Ivy Ross is not playing around, Fast Company (Nov) pp 104 – 110
[ii] Businessweek, July 3 2006, Camp Samsung.