The Global Innovation 1000 study, an analysis of R&D spending, aims to break down innovation principles that can be applied to any organization, in any industry.

Seeking to demystify R&D spending and decision-making, Barry Jaruzelski, Volker Staack, Brad Goehle and editor Rob Norton also use their yearly analysis to reveal the future plans and sentiment of many innovation leaders. In the article titled, “Proven Paths to Innovation Success,” the authors reflect on one of these findings after 10 years of conducting the study: “Many of our respondents said their companies plan to shift their R&D spending mix over the next decade—from incremental innovation to new and breakthrough innovation, and from product R&D to service R&D (1).”

But unless these R&D efforts are driven by a thorough understanding of customers’ needs and wants, performance may fall short, say Jaruzelski, Staack, Goehle and Norton. “We tested this hypothesis and found that over a three-year period, companies that directly captured customer insights had three times the growth in operating income and twice the return on assets of industry peers that captured customer insights indirectly (1).”

The authors suggest there are three ways companies manage the innovation process. Every company can align with one of these models as their primary method: Need Seekers, Market Readers or Technology Drivers. The authors compare the following:

Need Seekers: companies that seek to use superior insights about customers to generate new ideas. Their goal is to find the customer needs and wants of the future. They encourage co-creation within their ecosystem and they prioritize consumer insights.

Examples include Apple, Procter & Gamble, and Tesla. 

Market Readers: companies that are “fast followers,” seeking to improve on proven products/services through incremental innovations. Following a more cautious approach, they prioritize capabilities for managing resource requirements and engaging suppliers and partners.

Examples include Samsung, Caterpillar, and Visteon.

Technology Drivers: companies that rely on their technological capabilities to drive more innovation, looking first to develop technology, then after discovery, looking to see if any new opportunities can meet the known and unknown customer needs. These organizations have a culture that respects and values technical talent.

Examples include Google, Bosch, and Siemens.

With distinct characteristics and varying prioritization of their capabilities, the authors give evidence that the Need Seeker approach has a variety of advantages, but they admit that it’s not the right or only approach for every company (1). 

We sat down with Babak Forutanpour of Qualcomm, a software engineer with more than 22 years of experience in designing, developing and managing technical systems. Qualcomm had been a classic Technology Driver, but during Forutanpour’s time at Qualcomm, he founded a successful, company-wide, employee-run innovation program, FLUX, or Forward Looking User Experience and began to evolve how Qualcomm innovates

As the first blog in a two-part series, Forutanpour uncovers the secrets of how a global, technology-driven company can empower employees with a scalable innovation program—one that notably didn’t require a R&D resource allocation to launch. 

“If Something Bothers You, Go Change It”

The FLUX program started out of a frustration Forutanpour had in 2009. “At the time, being an engineer working in the camera group, I had all these ideas that were coming to me based on needs or pain points that I was seeing. Many of them weren't related to the camera imaging pipeline—they were outside of that [space],” said Forutanpour.

Forutanpour would share those ideas with various people in the company, but being that the company was very much execution-focused and didn’t have a design-centric approach to innovation, many of those ideas never able to be addressed.

With this realization, Forutanpour knew what he was tasked with: he wanted to harness the power of the dreamers at Qualcomm.

“The idea came out of the need I had—this need to find creative people to sit with.”

His vision was to create a group of people that he could sit and brainstorm with—a group of people who, like him, wanted to be innovative and creative. Forutanpour believed that perhaps, collectively, that group then could have a greater voice to pitch ideas and solutions. 

“What I decided to do was try this little experiment.” He wanted to see what would happen if he got 8 colleagues together in a room, with the intention of inventing the future.

To start, he chose people within the company that he knew, or had a hunch, were enjoyable to work with.

“Then I challenged them,” he said. 

He invited them to come together and brainstorm for one lunch break, every two weeks. “I don't care if the ideas are big or small, but I want them to be novel and useful," he explained to colleagues. Since the program was on an employees’ “own time,” the group came together out of passion for innovation, and also the sense of purpose they felt in pursuing the next “killer idea.” 

“Once we had our first idea, we were off to the races, and the program just slowly started to grow from there,” said Forutanpour. He credits three main factors that helped the program scale across the company: it provided a purpose, autonomy, and mastery.”

An Innovation Program with Purpose, Autonomy & Mastery 

Forutanpour saw how colleagues wanted to improve their innovation skillsets. “People wanted to, as we said, get the ‘404 Not Found’ page.”

A key factor that led to teams continuing to meet every two weeks for more than 6 years was the autonomy. Forutanpour set up the format so that the moderator of the team was not picking the topics. Instead, the goal was to “democratize innovation,” meaning anyone could bring an idea to the meeting. 

This idea of people coming together to improve their skills is really what helped spur the launch of the second and third team. “We [wanted] to sharpen our blade, and the way it really grew was what I didn't expect, which was when other people wanted to also become dream-catchers. They also wanted to run their own FLUX teams.” 

As the number of teams grew, a waiting list started to form.

Once one of Forutanpour’s friends launched the fourth team, his other friend told him, "I want to have my own team," a turning point that ended up helping the program start to scale.

“That was the real ‘aha’ moment, where FLUX essentially over time, went viral and it grew to 20 plus teams on 4 continents,” said Forutanpour. Over time, they found a bit of a sweet spot for the meetings. Besides sticking to an employees’ own time, the meeting format included the following values:

  1. Diverse colleagues. Looking back, Forutanpour says it wasn’t always someone who had technical or deep subject area expertise in a given domain who understood the need or had the novel idea. “We are the fuzzy front end: messy, dirty, confusing, and we were trying to come up with a pattern that your brain has never seen and find a solution - something cool that your brain has never heard of. Then we’d share that with the experts and make magic happen. That's really the core of FLUX.”

  2. Identification of needs and pain points before each session. To set up people-centered insights, Forutanpour explains how teams embraced a flexible framework to that people could get into the right mindset to always be discovering pain points of the consumer. “If we’re only going to get together once every 10 lunches, then we better make it the most effective it can be,” he explained, saying how they would generally try to then focus one several of those pain points during any given session. “The pain points didn’t even have to be Qualcomm [product-] related. It could be anything in their lives.” The moderator would then add some prioritization and organization to the pain points that had been submitted before the meeting, and then teams would have a flexible agenda to start with for the session. While they may or may not even get through all the pain points submitted to the moderator, this setup allowed team members something to start thinking even more about pain points in the days leading up to the session...

  3. No use of electronics during each brainstorming session. When the group would get together, it was time for ideas to flow freely, where both side conversations and electronics were discouraged because it can hurt morale. “If people aren't engaged, it rubs off on other people.” During the session, the moderator would take notes—just enough to keep inventorship clear. “Certainly, we've had thousands of hours of discussions and we've had maybe what 70 nuggets. We keep these meeting minutes, and if, by the end of the meeting or whenever, we hit that ‘aha’ moment, and it is novel, then let’s do some deeper dives,” explained Forutanpour.

  4. A mindset that embraced sharing of ideas. Forutanpour saw first-hand how “a sure way to kill an idea is to say it was invented ‘here,’ and if anyone wants to work on it, they have to give credit where credit is due.” Rather, the FLUX teams were not focused on the credit of ideas. “Whatever our ideas we came up with after we flushed them out, and did the best that we could do, we would publish them on an internal website so any employee could read it.” The intention was not to be possessive of ideas, but to share ideas for greater input and collaboration. About twice a year, colleagues would come together in the auditorium and share the top pain points and solution ideas from the past six months. Then if you wanted to work on that idea, you could meet with the team who started the idea and contribute. 

Part two of the series will examine what problems Forutanpour had to overcome when the FLUX program started to grow rapidly, including his biggest lessons learned looking back. 

About Babak Forutanpour 

Babak Forutanpour has more than 22 years experience as a software engineer designing, developing and managing technical systems that delight. Forutanpour is the founder of Don't Dream Alone a company that helps firms fuel a culture of innovation. His research at Qualcomm has been awarded over 90 patents, and his work as founder of employee-run innovation program FLUX has been recognized by former and current CEOs as having made a positive impact. Forutanpour served as VFX Technical Director at Disney and Warner Bros. for 4 Hollywood feature films. He recently led a successful Kickstarter that landed a deal with a Shark from ABC's hit show "Shark Tank." 


1) Jaruzelski, Barry, Volker Staack, and Brad Goehle. "Global Innovation 1000: Proven Paths to Innovation Success." Ed. Rob Norton. Strategy Business 2014. See also

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