Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

A Chain of Innovation: The Creation of Swiffer: Thinking about the Many Stories That Contribute to a Successful Innovation Can Add Depth and Perspective to Our Understanding of How Innovation Happens

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

A Chain of Innovation: The Creation of Swiffer: Thinking about the Many Stories That Contribute to a Successful Innovation Can Add Depth and Perspective to Our Understanding of How Innovation Happens

Article excerpt

In stories of heroic invention, we celebrate the lone inventor, imagining a single straight line from confronting a challenge to uncovering the solution. Of course, the real world of innovation is more complex. Most discoveries are made by teams, not lone inventors, and many innovations are developed simultaneously by different teams working independently across the globe (Merton 1961). Some have even argued that it is the technology itself that is the main protagonist--that innovations want to happen (Kelly 2008).

In commercial innovation, success depends on a series of innovations often carried out by different teams in sequence: consumer insight, technology, business model, brand, distribution, and so on. Each of these contributions in the chain of innovation is vital for the ultimate success of the new product or service, and each of these teams can rightly say that they made it happen because without their contribution it would not have happened.

The full story of any innovation, then, is the product of several different stories, each told by a different team involved. Generally, stories of invention are presented from just one point of view. In the story of Rashomon, different protagonists tell their version of the same story according to their self-interest. (1) In journalism, the "Rashomon Effect" describes how different interpretations of the same events can add up to a fuller, more detailed account--or contradict each other and make it difficult to determine the truth.

Similarly, in innovation, thinking about these many stories can add depth and perspective to our understanding of how innovation happens. I am going to describe in detail the invention of Swiffer from the point of view of a design researcher working to develop a new concept in floor cleaning. Then I will briefly describe the role of some other players in the creation of Swiffer based on other published accounts to give a more complete account of what happened. In each story, the role of the protagonist is seen as primary, which is accurate: each link in the chain of innovation is essential.

The Design Researcher's Story

In 1994, Procter & Gamble was looking to grow through innovation. Craig Wynett, Director of Corporate New Ventures, watching his wife clean their kitchen at home, made the observation that launched the innovation process that led to Swiffer: "There has got to be a better way to clean a floor." Craig pulled together a team of people from the P&G Corporate New Ventures group, the design firm Continuum, the advertising agency Nothlich Stolley, and some experts from the hard-surface cleaning and paper divisions at P&G. His mission for this diverse group was simple: find a better way to clean a floor. Together with my colleague Noelle Dye, I had the privilege of leading the Continuum team.

P&G already had a significant business in floor cleaning with the Mr. Clean line of detergents, and the company's R&D department knew a lot about the chemistry of floor cleaning, which they explained to us. However, we were not sure the future of floor cleaning was in better chemistry, or even in better dispensing of chemistry. We decided to step back and learn about floor cleaning afresh, through the eyes of consumers.

The team set out as design anthropologists to watch how people cleaned their kitchen floor. This was one of the first ventures into ethnographic research at P&G. We visited 18 homes in Cincinnati and Boston, spending about an hour and a half in each. We had no elaborate protocol; we just asked the women, and I am sorry to say they were all women, to clean their floors, in particular the kitchen floor. Mostly we just watched, although when we did not understand why they did something, we asked them to explain. We took notes and video recorded the entire process so that we could analyze it later.

To begin with, some of us focused on how the women used detergent because we had been primed to pay particular attention to that when we learned about the detergent business. …

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