The innovation keystone

Every so often, you come across a situation where you see a very clever application of the innovation keystone effect.

A keystone is that one brick in an arch that holds the whole thing up. Everything depends on it: it is the centre of what makes the whole structure work.

Buildings aren’t the only things with keystone, though. Innovations have them too.

In an innovation, the keystone is the genuinely unique thing in a product or service value proposition. If you change it just a little bit,  you get a disproportionately large effect in response.

I saw the innovation keystone at work last weekend at a production of The Mikado.

The Mikado, in case you’ve not heard of it before, is a comic opera which mocks British aristocracy and civil service hierarchy by transplanting the traditions of both into the cultural context of the court of Emperor of Japan in the late 19th century.

At the time the opera originally opened in London in 1885, there was a craze going on for all things Japanese. Gilbert and Sullivan, author and composer respectively, saw the opportunity to transplant their comic material to a Japanses setting in order to capitalise on this.

This transposition was highly unusual, fed directly to the public’s pent up demand, and made the opera one of the longest running theatre pieces ever until that time.

Here, the innovation keystone is the superimposition of two entirely opposite cultural norms.

Fast forward to the modern day, and I have to say I’ve gotten a bit tired of seeing The Mikado. All the jokes which rely on the juxtaposition of British Society and Japanese culture are a bit tired. Scarcely any treatment involving more luxurious sets or extravagant costumes works to amaze any more.  I went to the performance knowing that it would probably be the last time ever.

But the English National Opera has innovated as much as the Gilbert and Sullivan did. They decided to vary the innovation keystone by  taking out all the Japanese sets and costumes and transplanting the comedy into a mainstream English hotel.

So, what you now have is English Aristocracy and Civil Service being sent up in the historical context of Japanese culture and tradition  but within the visual frame of an English setting.

There were gasps from the audience when the curtain came up. Then there were further gasps and applause when the traditional chorus of “the Gentlemen of Japan” were replaced with British Admirals, various top hatted men, and their associated cronies.

The new visual context gave all the jokes new steam because they were now much more sophisticated. You had to know that all these ladies and gents in 19th century British costume were actually men and women from Japan, who were actually making fun of real people from 19th century Britain.

There was a standing ovation at the end.

My point in retelling all this is to reflect on the fact that incremental innovations around keystones can turn out to be quite radical in nature.

Changing the costumes and sets for a new show, though, is something well understood and part of the general business process of any production company.

Touching the keystone let the English National Opera create something genuinely new without doing very much they wouldn’t ordinarily have done.

Note to innovation executives: if you find your innovation keystone for something that’s already successful, you have a good chance of creating a second big success without all that much additional effort and risk.

2 Responses to“The innovation keystone”

  1. March 19, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Hi James

    Really interesting post that triggered two thoughts: it’s a nice coincidence that I’m consulting through “Keystone Law”, an innovative ‘new model’ law firm; and something Lisa Montague, CEO of Loewe, the Spanish luxury firm, said in answer to the FT’s 20 Questions yesterday:
    “if you really focus on the heart of a brand then you can change it without breaking hearts.”


  2. James Gardner
    March 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Thanks – what a wonderful quote.

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