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Designing Innovation

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Innovation has become a major buzzword of the 21st century and many companies feel they have established incubators for innovation in their market. Hard to believe? Search any major company plus the word “innovation” and you will find it appears at least once on their website; in fact, it probably appears repeatedly. They probably even have their own “Innovation Lab,” but do they understand how to design innovation for success? At CANA we strive to continually perfect how we tackle tough problems, and we would like to challenge your perception of the approach to innovation.

What is innovation? Wikipedia defines innovation as the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services. Many companies innovate and bring new goods or services to market. Some succeed and some fail due to a wide range of factors. It is intriguing, though, to dig a bit deeper into the traditional approach to innovation. What we find is that the design phase has the greatest influence on profitability, market acceptance, adaptability, time to market, and inevitably, success.

Yet, the least amount of time and money is often spent on design. Focus is often given to the quickest solution in an effort to obtain first to market. The critical long-term success factors can be overlooked as companies rush to push a product out the door. As we look back through history, it is often the approach to innovation that singles out successful icons such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.

Most companies focus on the newest shiny object. Any company with enough funding and time can release new features that are tacked onto an existing product or copied from the greatest competitor. The product needs to be more than just the shiniest object in order to succeed. Often the innovation itself is in the design: what’s going on under the hood or the work that takes place behind the curtain before the product hits the shelf. It is not a shiny object at all, but a facilitator of success through calculated design and implementation.

We need to identify and design to the critical factors of success surrounding the problem:

  • What differentiates it from the competition?

  • How long does it take to build?

  • How to minimize or eliminate dependencies?

  • How cost-effective is the solution?

  • How are quality and longevity addressed?

  • How to source the supply chain or human resources?

  • Who is the market and will it be embraced in the final form factor?

  • How does the design support automation?

  • What is the training required for staffing to scale?

  • What features, data and processes are being duplicated with the new components?

  • Can it be marketed, and how?

Countless dollars and time are spent on band-aiding new products and features onto existing platforms rather than developing from the ground up to achieve real success. The result is a spider web of poorly integrated capabilities that provide a less-than-ideal user experience and rarely scale. We need to challenge the status quo that throwing out what works today and starting from scratch to meet tomorrow’s needs is bad. Adding new features often requires the removal of as many components as it adds. Just because something has always been done a certain way does not mean it will make sense tomorrow.

We should approach problems with the most naive and childlike perceptions: forget everything we know and start from the ground up. Elon Musk said, “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing.” Instead, we should, “[b]oil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.” You must break the paradigm. Do not become so attached to the current state, and so lost in the details, that you cannot see the forest for the trees. The simplest solution that will reduce total accounting cost, and training, and meet the delivery timeline while also increasing quality, is often staring us right in the face.

Thomas Edison is often credited with the invention of the light bulb. The fact is that several inventors, some claim up to 20, had developed incandescent lamps prior to Edison. Where Edison succeeded was the first commercially practical light bulb. Rather than simply inventing an incandescent lamp, he was innovating using design considerations for incandescent material, such as exterior packaging to achieve a higher vacuum and higher resistance to allow power distribution from a centralized source. His innovation was not the light bulb, otherwise, cavemen would have been credited with the invention through their discovery of fire. Edison’s innovation was in the identification of an economically viable solution to the light bulb: a product that could be widely accessible to the general consumer. This is why he is credited with success.

Henry Ford graced us with the Ford Model T. It was a brilliant innovation that was a simple and robust solution to all the downfalls of a horse and buggy and was far more versatile and superior in capabilities. The problem was that Ford could not scale because of minimal cost margin, and it was too expensive for the average American. This primarily was due to the fact it took over 12 hours to build a single vehicle. While flying over a meat packing plant in Chicago, Ford was intrigued watching cows march into one end of the plant, and packaged hamburgers flowing out the other. He determined if a cow could be processed through a disassembly line, then his Model T could be built much more efficiently through an assembly line. When we think of Henry Ford, we often think not of his Model T, but of his innovative design of the automotive assembly line. It changed the industry forever. His design to bring that innovation to market was what made him successful.

Steve Jobs was arguably the innovation mastermind behind much, if not all, of Apple’s success. He continually beat the competition, but his approach to innovation was his greatest strength. Just one of his great achievements was the iPod. The Sony Walkman was, by all standards, the industry leader, but continued to focus on removable magnetic memory (cassette tapes and CDs). Steve Jobs saw this as a limitation so he went back to the first principles of the problem. Jobs went back to the drawing board and designed a solution with solid-state memory that allowed the portable music player to be delivered in a more user-friendly and smaller form factor. His innovation was not the portable music player, but an innovative design to the form factor, battery life, capability, and future features through updates that the Walkman could not deliver.

Elon Musk has succeeded in beating the odds over and over again. One can argue launching rockets and sending payloads to space was barely innovative, as this was first achieved in 1958 with the Explorer 1. It can also be argued that electric vehicles are not groundbreaking inventions; after all, the first electric vehicle was developed in 1832. In fact, several attempts were made to produce them on a wider scale in the 1870s and beyond. Elon Musk instead focused on the practical fundamentals of these problems. His innovation was in the cost-effective delivery to market.

At SpaceX, Musk focused on developing reusable first-stage rockets that effectively reduced the cost of a rocket launch by 80% per launch. At Tesla, he focused on developing and building his own battery technology at scale, while limiting the number of parts and designing for reusability. A Tesla EV drivetrain has, on average, just 17 to 18 parts compared to roughly 200 in a standard internal combustion engine. And, each model of Tesla shares up to 75% of its parts with other models. In addition, Musk focused on robotic assembly lines that would scale to reduce the cost of entry to electric vehicles for the average consumer.

Elon Musk defined a 5-Step Design Process that SpaceX utilizes to reinforce these concepts during their innovation process:

1. Make the requirements less dumb.

Requirements often make too many assumptions and are not clearly defined. Take a rigorous approach to the question and simplify the requirements. Test all assumptions.

2. Delete the part or process.

Simplify through the removal of parts or processes that unnecessarily overcomplicate the solution. Musk challenges his team to delete until they have to add back in to achieve meeting the requirements. “If you’re not adding things back in at least 10% of the time, you’re clearly not deleting enough.”

3. Simplify or optimize the design.

Do not optimize something that should not exist in the first place.

4. Accelerate cycle time.

Ensure efforts are being utilized to move forward in the right direction. “If you’re digging your grave, don’t dig it faster. Stop digging your grave.”

5. Automate.

Design for automation, but automate last. Make it work first before wasting time automating something that is not required in the first place.

When approaching a problem, step back and reason from the first principles. Look deliberately at the approach to innovation from the entirety of design through delivery. Develop a solution without any preconceived notions. Realize the solution may not be the quickest nor the easiest. The goal is to beat the odds by reinventing from the ground up for long-term success.

At CANA we embrace this challenge and continually evaluate, adapt and execute an approach to innovation that will solve our client’s toughest challenges and ensure their long-term success.


Todd is a Principal Software Engineer at CANA. You can contact Todd at or on Linkedin.


1 “Innovation.” Wikipedia, Accessed 21 October 2022.

2 Kevin Rose. (2012, September 7). Foundation 20 // Elon Musk [Video]. YouTube.

3 Christopher McFadden. “Who Actually Invented The Indcadescent Light Bulb?” Interesting Engineering, (2019, April 3)

4 “Ford’s assembly line starts rolling.” History, A&E Television Networks, LLC, Accessed 21 October 2022.

5 Ron Adner. “Innovation Success: How the Apple iPod Broke all Sony’s Walkman Rules.” Knowledge Insead.” 7 March 2012.

6 “Explorer 1.” Wikipedia, Accessed 21 October 2022.

8 “SpaceX just saved NASA $500 million with one rocket.” Quartz, 29 July 2021.

9 Tristan Perry. “How Many Moving Parts Does a Tesla Have?.” Green Car Future, 12 April 2021

10 Fred Lambert. “Tesla Model Y teardown: shows some great improvements over Model 3 despite sharing 75% of parts.” electrek,

11 Everyday Astronaut. (2021, August 3). [SUMMER 2021] Starbase Tour with Elon Musk [PART 1] [Video]. YouTube.

12 Ibid

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