Sunday, February 3, 2013

Innovation: The Elephant in the Room


Ask any 10 people what it means to innovate and you’ll likely get 15 different answers.  

Which reminds me of the joke about six blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each man’s description only encompasses that part of the elephant he is able to touch (and about the only thing one knows for certain is that you don’t want to be the guy who got stuck holding the tail…)

As with most useful terms that wind up in the wrong hands, meaning quickly drains away and buzzword fatigue soon sets in.  But the concept of innovation is too important for us to let it slip into Buzzwordlandia without a fight. 

Whenever I’m asked to give a lecture on innovation, I always start out by asking for volunteers from the audience to give me their definition of innovation. Silence generally ensues, broken only by a stifled cough or the sound of someone shifting uncomfortably in their seat. 

Occasionally some brave soul will stand up and haltingly try to give a definition. Someone else will then chime in with a slightly different interpretation that they’ve memorized from a book - although somehow it doesn’t seem quite so convincing once they’ve said it. After that, most of the others aren’t terribly willing to tackle this question in front of the group.

So I ask a different question: “Who can tell me about a product that they think represents a real innovation?” And now it seems that everyone has an answer:  

“The telephone!” “The automobile!” “Computers!” “The internet!”

“So what you’re telling me," I say to a now energized crowd, "is that innovation is a lot like pornography.”  

Suddenly everyone is quiet.  Not surprisingly, I get a lot of puzzled looks as I continue paraphrasing Justice Stewart, “You can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it.”  

Yes, it’s a trick designed to break the ice, but it works.  And now that everyone has loosened up a bit, we can get to the task at hand:  Defining innovation in a way that is both meaningful and actionableWhat follows may seem a bit of a mouthful, but bear with me and see if, by the end, you don’t agree:

An innovation is a non-obvious solution to a problem (whether real or perceived) that, once it takes hold in the marketplace, not only becomes obvious but also becomes the new standard.

OK, Let’s break this down in to its main parts and see how well it holds up under scrutiny:

“…a non-obvious solution to a problem..." 

Well, if it had been obvious, someone else would have already done it - which hardly leaves much room for your idea/product/service to be considered innovative.

“…whether real or perceived…” 

It doesn’t take too much time in front of the TV seeing ads for all kinds of things before you realize many of the “problems”  products are designed to solve aren’t real problems, they’re just perceived problems. Don’t believe me? Then take a peek at The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture.  Not making a value judgement here - just an observation.

“…that once it takes hold in the marketplace…” 

OK, this is where it really gets interesting: Innovations are not created in a vacuum.  They don’t burst onto the scene fully formed and find widespread acceptance overnight, no matter what the popular press (and corporate PR machines) might like you to believe.  They take time and go through iteration after iteration as part of a dialog with consumers and end users (and a competition with other solutions) until finally both the product developers and the market share the same “Aha!” moment.

“…not only becomes obvious but also becomes the new standard.” 

This is what comes of that shared “Aha!” moment.  It’s so obvious! Why didn’t someone think of it before? Sure, tweaks and improvements continue to be made, but the collective consciousness and pocketbook of the market not only gets it, but buys it in droves. (“I get it! I want it! No, I need it!”) 

But then the cycle begins all over again…some other non-obvious solution comes onto the scene and makes headlines...

The one objection I’m sometimes met with when I present this definition of innovation to an audience is that I’ve only dealt with disruptive innovation.  It was Clayton Christensen who first popularized the idea of disruptive technologies, which evolved into his theory about disruptive innovations. Since then, however, a whole industry has arisen around parsing out and examining various types of innovation including "sustaining," "evolutionary," "revolutionary" as well as "disruptive." I mean no disrespect to Professor Christensen, but it seems that once again we find ourselves observing six ( or is it six thousand?) blind men trying to describe an elephant.  It also seems that most of them have a very firm grasp on the tail...

My response is to turn to the world of art - specifically to Seurat and the Pointillists (disruptors in their own right, originally vilified by art critics of the time):  


The Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884–1886, at The Art Institute of Chicago
The “Big Picture” of any innovation - the automobile, the telephone, the computer, the internet - is very easy to see from a distance. But we are only able to see it because of all those tiny, carefully placed dots: the wisdom of the early investor to see the possibilities; the efforts of the product manager to find the right market; the designers constantly toiling away at improving the form factor, making a button easier to use or a feature simpler to find; the marketers continuously refining the pitch to make the sale; the feedback from early adopters - that go into creating the Big Picture.  It takes all of this and more to form the whole, and it then takes a whole market willing to accept a new way of doing and seeing things to complete the circle.

But markets, as any business person can tell you, are extremely fickle, and never satisfied with the way things are. So once your innovation has truly succeeded and become "The New Standard," you better get cracking on the "Next New Thing"…