The SBEC Innovation Doctor: Meet Tim Brewer

SBEC: Ask the Innovation Doctor (Tim Brewer)

SBEC’s “Innovation Doctor” Tim Brewer is an industrial designer and idea development specialist. He’s an Adjunct Instructor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA and somehow teaches interaction design at the Art Institute of Seattle too (frequent flyer…). Tim helps his students and clients design innovative solutions using a method he developed called ‘IDEAL design.’ IDEAL pragmatically inspires inventive ideas and intellectual property that can be developed into innovative products and solutions.

Somehow we managed to catch Tim between classes, flights and consultations to ask him a few questions about innovation.

Is innovation something that companies can learn how to do, or must it be part of their DNA?

Yes, companies, by nature, innovate to an extent.

Innovation, or the process of developing an idea or invention into a valued product or service, is accomplished by many if not most companies. Innovation starts with an idea and is ultimately validated by an offer of consideration for the value perceived by the customer.

I view ‘innovation’ as a trailing indicator of value best understood after the sale. Invention, on the other hand, consists of the upfront ideas and innovating is the process of developing value out of these ideas.

Companies can also be nurtured generate higher value initial ideas resulting in higher value innovations delivered. They can also be trained to evaluate and scale the magnitude of their innovations. Ranging from incremental improvements to radical ‘most advanced, yet acceptable’ (Raymond Lowey) innovations.

A radical innovation* is defined by the Rensselaer Polytecnic Institute as, and I paraphrase, a 500% to 1000% increase in benefits delivered and/or a 30% or greater reduction in costs required to deliver the benefits. (*’R&D Management 31, 4′, 2001. (c) Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001, p409-420)

Radical innovation is a trickier concept as it involves humans and company’s willingness to embrace change and risk. Once a company succeeds at delivering an innovation they to be pretty good at delivering incremental benefit increases and/or cost reductions on their own. They may even be good at pursuing radical reductions in costs as there is less risk in continuing to deliver a benefit customers already value but at much lower cost to the company.

Radical increases in innovation are frequently viewed as difficult and risky. However, with our IDEAL design method to understand and generate radical ideas and Lean Startup’s Validated Learnings method to validate customer acceptance, we can generate incremental to radical ideas quickly and then inexpensively validate them. It becomes relatively easy to create most advanced yet acceptable ideas and, ultimately, innovations.

What companies do you consider to be innovative today?

Determining whether a company is innovative is a bit complicated. Determining whether a product system and its subsystems is innovative is simpler. Systems (products or services) develop unevenly (‘TRIZ for Engineers: Enabling Inventive Problem Solving’, 2011. (c) John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Gadd, Karen, chapter 9). That is, the parts or subsystems of the system develop on their own timeline and any improvements are inherited by the system. This means incremental and radical improvements can occur throughout the system and when the system development is complete we can qualitatively assess whether the completed system and its subsystems improved incrementally (iPhone 6s) or radically (original iPhone as compared to the best competing phone at the time).

Apple, lead by Steve Jobs, created numerous radically innovative systems like the original iPhone along with well executed incremental innovations like subsequent iPhones, the iPad, iWatch, iPod, the MacBook line of laptops, Mac computers and operating systems. As of fall 2015, Apple regularly delivers very well executed incrementally innovative product systems. These include any number of incremental and radically innovative subsystems (cpu speeds, camera resolutions, storage memory, etc.) and they may radically reduce costs as well. But, what new radical system level innovations are they developing? Time will tell…

The Uber ride sharing service recognizing the innovation potential of mass smartphone connectivity radically improved the coordination of people needing rides and people willing to share their cars and provide rides. They also reduced the undesirable human involvement in being transported locally (smartphone ride hailing, estimated wait time, automatic ride payment, elimination of tips, etc.). And they are doing this on a global scale. Airbnb did a similar radical innovation with home sharing.

Want to identify radically innovative companies? Here’s how.

Identify radically innovative companies by comparing their products to the best of what came before. Use your intuition. If your gut tells you a product seems to deliver 500%-1000% more benefits and/or costs 30% or less in resources or time to use then you probably have a radical innovation and company.

Can you tell us about the most innovative project you have worked on?

One of the projects with the most innovation potential I worked on was a laptop concept that emitted a ‘spotlight’ of sound for half-private Skype communications. If you were in front of the laptop and the sound spotlight it emitted you could hear the sound but if not then you could hear little or nothing. Think of hands-free speakerphone convenience with the half-privacy of a headset or handset. I built a prototype using a commercial ultrasonic speaker commonly mounted to ceilings in Museums. When you walked beneath the speaker spotlight you privately heard information about the exhibit, when you walked away you could hear nothing keeping the museum quiet for everyone. I demonstrated the concept to Bill Gates during a Microsoft ‘Science Fair’ and it captured his curiosity. He had never seen (or heard) anything like it and invited me to demonstrate it privately for him and other interested parties at Microsoft. As with many early prototypes, there were minor implementation issues. The prototype speaker was a little larger than a human head so some spotlight sound would pass by the user’s head, hit the wall and become somewhat audible to everyone. This would likely have been solved by engineering and design. Unfortunately, I had neither the experience or training I have today to more effectively illustrate and communicate the radical innovation potential of the concept relative to the best available laptop audio systems. This is one innovation that ‘got away’ but also helped stoked my desire to understand and develop more effective ideation and innovation methods. I knew there had to be a better way.

I also program managed development teams for numerous Microsoft’s mouse products including the invention of the mouse scroll-wheel system. These too were arguably incremental innovations. The wheel-scroll eliminated the undesirable human involvement needed to control scrollbars while simultaneously trying to view content. With the scroll-wheel all you had to do was have the mouse pointer over the general area you wanted to scroll through and simply rotate the wheel. This seems easily like at least a 30% (radical) reduction in time and concentration required to view content BUT when evaluating the entire scroll-mouse product, the improvement seems like just a significant incremental innovation. Albeit quite a profitable improvement.

You’re an innovation consultant – what is your typical scenario with a new client?

I work as an Innovation Consultant but I am really an Idea Development Specialist.

Here is how I typically engage clients:

  1. Introduce the IDEAL design method. (30-60 minutes)
    IDEAL design is a vision-driven method for fostering incremental to radical innovations by looking beyond current ‘boxes’ or limits.
  2. Seek a clear understanding of the client’s business, wants and needs, products/services, and available resources
    Include obvious resources like employees, buildings, location, etc. and non-obvious resources like anything in the environment (sun, gravity, temperature, pressure, etc.), problems and harms in current systems (Can we transform harms into benefits?), etc.
  3. Define the outcome users ideally desire
    I recently worked with an aftermarket auto parts distributor with an impressive knowledge base of do-it-yourself information they provide customers for free along with their parts. Ideally, their products and services deliver feelings of accomplishment and pride for their customers. Understanding this outcome can help frame and inspire new ideas for delivering ‘accomplishment and pride’ filled outcomes.
  4. Gain an understanding of the opportunity space and any problems
  5. Is the client looking for incremental, radical or a mix of ideas?
  6. Using the Patterns of Evolution, Effects Databases, and Existing Resources as inspiration
    Brainstorm radical (500%-1000%) improvements and/or 30% or greater cost reductions to their (or their best competitors) products/services.
  7. Form Minimum Viable Prototypes (MVP) of the most promising ideas and validate them with real customers.
  8. With these Validated Learnings, Pivot and either iterate the concept, the user or both.
    Note: MVP, Validated Learnings, and Pivot are Lean Startup terms. (
  9. Repeat steps 6-8 until the concept is comfortably validated.

You’re a proponent of TRIZ – are innovation frameworks like TRIZ worth exploring for small businesses, or is this the domain of larger companies?

TRIZ, a Russian acronym meaning the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, is a large set of tools and knowledge and can take considerable dedication to learn and effectively apply. Larger companies can afford to hire TRIZ consultants for specific projects and/or to train staff. While, companies with fewer resources will still benefit over time by learning TRIZ on their own.

IDEAL design is based on a useful and powerful subset of TRIZ including Patterns of Evolution; use of Existing Resources; library of Scientific Effects; and more.

Bottom line: IDEAL design is an easy expedited method to learn and apply compared to the entire TRIZ toolset.

What are some books you would recommend for someone wanting to learn more about innovation?

The following TRIZ books are comprehensive and relatively easy to consume.

Also, see my LinkedIn profile for more information.


By | 2017-05-25T18:19:08+00:00 November 3rd, 2015|0 Comments