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Innovation 101

Lesson 1: Resist the Temptation to "Build a Better Mousetrap," explains Ali Alwattari.

By Dr. Ali Alwattari, New Product Developer and Innovation Author

Published January 5, 2010
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Getting the best ideas from the R&D lab to consumers is a central challenge for new product development in many industries. Moreover, the percentage of ideas that make it from lab to consumer is low. One factor that affects the probability of success is how innovators look at a given development challenge or problem and whether they make the right “diagnosis” decides if their ideas will fail right out of the gate. To illustrate, let’s consider the age old saying, "build a better mousetrap."

The mousetrap way of thinking is a great example of a WRONG problem definition. Why? Because it has at least two severely limiting assumptions.First, it assumes that the only answer can be found within the EXISTING technology field of mousetraps. Second, it defines the goal in terms of a solution ("how") instead of consumer need ("what").This way of thinking misdirects the development of newer, more effective ways to meet the consumer’s needs.For the case study of mousetraps, what is the fundamental consumer need? It’s a house free of mice, not a better mousetrap!

The table below illustrates how this subtle difference in “need diagnosis” dramatically changes subsequent product development work:

Problem Definition 1: there are mice in the house

Approaches to solve problem:
- hire exterminator
- buy hungry cats
- move

- more diverse approach than just devices
- higher probability of solving entrenched problem
- more risky but higher potential for novelty

- initially unknown cost or supplier
- more groundwork before you start development
- may rely on competency external to company
  Problem Definition 2: need a better mousetrap

Approaches to solve problem:
- mousepaper (U.S. 2,962,836)
- multiple snares in 1 trap (U.S. 101,620)
- electric power harpoon (U.S. 4,669,216)

- certainty (improve on proven/core technology)
- known supply source for components
- strong technical know-how in one technical area

- lots of competition in technology/product form
- low probability of performance breakthrough
- narrow approach to solve problem

Now, let’s look at the outcomes of innovation for this case. As you can see from the table below, despite lots of "invention" in mousetraps, marketplace performance suggests the consumer-based problem definition (mice) tracks more accurately with consumer satisfaction and revenue growth!

Mousetrap device
Professional Extermination
> 5000

  New Sales
$25 million
$350 million

©Ali Alwattari 2009

About the Author
Dr. Ali Alwattari is with Procter & Gamble as an R&D and New Product Development scientist introducing new technologies. He is the inventor on 10 patents and applications including elastic polymers for Cover Girl No Smudge Mascara, controlled stress wrinkle reducers for Olay technology pipeline and controlled release substrate for Pampers Sunnies sunscreen wipes.

Prior to joining P&G, Dr. Alwattari was with Gillette serving as New Product Development manager and scientist leading innovation for Shave Preps and Post Shave Skin Care. New technologies validated and transitioned into product development included color visual signal shave gels, post shave cooling gel-wipes, high lubricity shave gels and self-heating shave creams.

Prior to that, he was an R&D scientist with Nexis Biotechnologies.

Dr. Alwattari received his BS in chemical engineering from MIT and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Texas Austin.

He can be reached at: alwattari@alum.mit.edu or 513-375-9190

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