Friday, July 13, 2018

Retrosynthesis: Lead Innovation Forward and Manage Innovation Backward

In the rapidly evolving businesses and economic systems, the creation of new innovations is very complex but critical for firms' survival and thriving.

Innovation is the management process of converting novel ideas to achieve their business value. In the digital era, innovation is more science than art and should be managed systematically. What defines science from chance is the ability to repeat a process with the same resultant solution every time, through the application of known facts. Due to the complex business dynamic today, digital innovation management is the cross-management discipline which stands in between management, economy, psychology, sociology, entrepreneurship, and law, not speaking about disciplines that are related to knowledge transfer or technologies implemented by the particular innovation. Innovation is about making progress or advancement, but innovation management sometimes needs to trace backward. There are both innovation paradox and dilemmas that innovation leaders must deal with in order to overcome the challenges.

The science of innovation can be understood as retrosynthesis: Innovation is about leading forward - either by developing the more advanced products/services/solutions or figuring out the better way to solve problems. However, innovation management sometimes needs to take “the backward” approach by leveraging the retrosynthesis scenario. Synthesis is defined as the procedure combine separate elements or components in order to form a coherent whole by putting together, combining, or integrating. Retrosynthesis describes the process of planning a synthesis backward, by starting at the ideal products; the “target,” and then taking it back a step at a time.” It starts with what you want to see or have; then, think backward from there to what the next simpler step is; and then back to what are the next simpler components, back to what you have at hand. The science of innovation is created whenever people start applying the scientific method of observing, creating hypotheses and taking retrosynthesis procedure to approve or disprove those hypotheses. It is the process that many disruptive innovators use as well as the artists who are fine-tuning their crafts take. A defined process or structure is essential to manage innovation in a corporation, but there’s no single structure that will work in every organization. It is important to leverage varying processes such as analysis, synthesis, and retrosynthesis at the different phase of innovation management. It is also critical to create an open space to keep ideas flow and innovation grow as developing the piece of art and build the scientific products/solutions.

There is the paradox management evolved in managing innovation: Creating is being able to think backward (from product or outcome of components) and forwards (from materials or resources at hand) at the same time. It is an innovation paradox. Failure is part of innovation. Fail fast and fail forward! It is important to lead innovation forward, but also take “lesson learned,” through the backward tracking process. When innovation fails, businesses should take the time to analyze the process to find the point of failure to avoid it in the future. Organization management innovation is based on the varying factors, such as the speed of decision-making, the attitude toward risk, how effective for the allocation of resources; what’s the altitude of innovation impact and the aptitude to manage innovation; how efficient of the innovation processes or lack thereof. There are paradoxes in managing innovation, the key is how to strike the right balance of breaking down the old rules and setting the new principles; encouraging creativity and standardizing processes; capturing opportunities and managing risks, etc, in order to improve the innovation success rate.


Innovation science is rather more a complex of rules, practices, and examples than theoretic science: Innovation management requires knowledge, involvement, and commitment. The principles and guidelines help to further frame innovation processes, measures, and control. If the innovation theory is sound (learning from the past), then it can help the innovation practice achieve repeatability of outcomes. It’s also important to develop the tailored best and next practices for leading forward. Do not take the innovation theories or best practices as absolute truth. Because due to the changing circumstances, some best practices are no longer the best practices for you; or some innovation theories are also outdated somehow. Due to the complexity of innovation management, innovation is not often a one-man show as before, open innovation, collaborative innovation, or management innovation are all “digital flavors” of innovation to lead forward, but often involving some ‘backward” management discipline for the "lesson learned." Strategic alliances, research networking, cross-domain collaboration, or the scientific innovation processes such as retrosynthesis, are all needed to be coupled to overcome innovation complexity, improve innovation effectiveness, and amplify innovation effect.

In the rapidly evolving businesses and economic systems, the creation of new innovations is very complex but critical for firms' survival and thriving. Digital innovation has an expanded scope and it is benefiting the widest audience of the digital ecosystem. Following the well-set principles and rules, leveraging tailored methodologies and tools and applying the best or next practices, leading forward, but managing backward when needed, are all important to improve innovation management effectiveness, reap the business benefit, and increase the success rate of innovation.

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