For the Market or the Masses?

Making Sense of Push vs. Pull Innovation

Alan Holden
Mar 16, 2016 · 6 min read
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Next time you’re sitting in front of your laptop, take a moment and type “how to innovate” into your search bar.

I tried it just the other day… and got nearly 24 million results.

There were articles on topics ranging from design thinking, to idea generation, to how companies run their innovation programs. And I saw countless advertisements, op-eds, and opinion pieces by consultancies and researchers proclaiming that their way was the newest or best way to innovate.

But try as I might, the only real conclusion I could draw from my search was that the “right” way to innovate is totally dependent on the problem in front of you. With so many tools, approaches, and techniques available, the most effective innovators are those that understand how to apply the right tool, in the right situation, at the right time.

While Wharton has long been a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, recent years have seen students increasingly interested in pursuing these topics as part of their formal education. And the school has responded to these demands by offering courses designed to give its students exactly the type of toolkit that need to be effective innovators long after graduation.

In this three-part series of blog posts, I’ll explore some of the specific tools Wharton is giving its students, helping to build the next generation of tomorrow’s most effective innovators.


“Innovation is a new match between a need and a solution.”

Sounds simple enough, right?

But in fact, this statement points to one of the most complex aspects of selecting the right innovation tool for a given situation: not all innovation starts from the same point.

In some cases, innovation starts with a need in the market. Solutions must then be developed to address this need. Other times, however, the process begins with the development of a new product, service, or technology that must then find a problem it can solve.

I’ve come to understand innovation that starts at each of these points as “pull innovation” and “push innovation,” reflecting similar terminology used in marketing. And understanding the difference between these starting points and what they mean for the innovation process is essential to picking the right tools from your innovation toolkit.

Pull Innovation — Starting from Consumer Needs

In her recent ID Blog post “What is Design Thinking anyways?” Eleanor Horowitz provides an articulate and succinct overview of the design thinking process. Tools such as design thinking, ethnographic research, and user journey mapping are at the core of pull innovation, or innovation that begins by defining consumer pain points. As the old saying goes, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.

Techniques that apply design thinking to pull-based innovation are taught in a variety of courses across Wharton. For example, in his course Product Design — offered jointly through Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania’s Integrated Product Design program — Professor Karl Ulrich teaches students how to gather consumer data via interviews, focus groups, surveys, and ethnographic research. By documenting this data and tying it to specific goals for your solution, it is possible to use these user needs as a starting point for developing an innovation.

Similarly, in his course Change, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Professor Ian MacMillan shows students how a tool called “consumption chain analysis” can be used to identify opportunities to innovate. Consumption chain analysis involves mapping each step a consumer goes through — otherwise known as the user journey — in completing a task. Analyzing these steps and looking for pain points across them helps the innovator identify opportunities to improve the user experience.

Both of these tools begin with the identification of user needs, a hallmark of pull innovation.

Push Innovation — Starting with a New Product, Service, or Market Opportunity

When the PC was first launched, consumers struggled to identify how it could benefit them in their everyday lives. Calculators were available for basic math, and many business leaders felt that home computers would never find a market. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, stated in 1977 that “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
As we all know, not only did personal computers find a market, but they eventually became an essential part of modern society. But this only occurred because innovators took this new piece of technology and came up with novel and better ways to use it to meet peoples’ needs. This is an example of “push-based” innovation, or innovation that starts with a new product or solution rather than with a clearly identified problem.

Today, drones, augmented reality devices, and 3D printing represent similar examples of new technologies that innovators are attempting to apply to consumer needs. And push-innovation extends beyond just new technologies. In drug development, for example, scientists will often develop new compounds and then test them to determine whether they do anything useful.

As with pull innovation, there is no shortage of courses at Wharton that equip students with tools to support push-based innovation. For example, in his course Idea Generation and the Systematic Approach for Creativity, Professor Rom Schrift teaches students how to deconstruct a product into its key components, and then modify these components to develop something new. Take laundry detergent as an example. Its core components include soap, water, perfume, and the fabric you ultimately apply the detergent to. But by subtracting the soap component and then reconstructing what you have left, you now have a scented water for fabrics — aka Febreze.

Another tool that can be applied to “push-innovation” scenarios can be found in Doblin Consulting’s book, The Ten Types of Innovation. Discussed in multiple Wharton classes — including the introductory course simply entitled Innovation — the book describes how extensive research has revealed ten dimensions across which innovation can occur. By mapping where innovation is occurring across those ten dimensions for a particular product category (coffee makers, for example), it is possible to find untapped opportunities for future innovation. This approach uses an entire product category as a starting point for innovation rather than a clearly defined user need.

Finally, students can learn a third approach that could be classified as push-based innovation in the aforementioned course on Change, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Among the many tools Professor MacMillan gives students is the Preemptive Opportunity Table, a simple 3x3 matrix that can be used to identify opportunities to innovate based on market conditions. By examining intersections between specific market trends and strategies businesses can take to address these trends, innovation is again possible without using user needs as a starting point.


These different tools illustrate just a few of the ways that Wharton prepares its students to innovate in the real world. But perhaps just as importantly, they are indicative of one of the most important lessons regarding the innovation process: there’s no “right” place to start. Innovation is possible regardless of whether you elect to begin the process by identifying a consumer need that’s looking for a solution, or a new product or technology that hasn’t quite found its place in the market.

By reminding students of this fact, and giving them a box of tools that can be applied across a variety of situations in the real world, Wharton is giving its innovators of the future the skills to be true change-makers.

About the author: Alan works at the intersection of strategy and innovation, helping organizations envision how emerging approaches and technologies can transform their operations and infuse innovation into their culture. An experienced facilitator, public speaker, and entrepreneur, Alan has published papers on topics ranging from Augmented Reality to re-imagining the US prison system, and has presented at innovation-related events around the world. Alan is currently a 2nd year MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he is majoring in Innovation Management.

Wharton Innovation & Design

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