Innovators, don’t create!

The other day, I gave a presentation on some of the material from my new book Sidestep and Twist. If you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ll know the basic premise of this book is most of the big hits of recent times haven’t been especially new, and they’ve used things other than features to make sure they preserve their competitive advantage over everything else.

Once again, I was struck by how alien the idea is to innovation professionals that finding genuine newness isn’t the real game.  That if you really do create a breakthrough, the chance of making real commercial gains is much less than if you copy what someone else has done before. And, ultimately, that the process of creating a successful commercial return from innovation is not choosing the best thing, but the thing that’s most likely to work.

I once put that position to a group which included some researchers from the pharmaceutical industry and they practically ripped my face off. Their argument was that their whole industry was based on discovering brand new compounds so how dare I say that if they wanted hit products they should spend less on research.

To them I have a simple argument: The biggest drug in history was Lipitor,  the 5th product in a range of drugs in the category, and the reason for its success had everything to do with superb sales representation into doctors, and practically nothing to do with the compound itself.

So not a breakthrough then.

Now, if you’re an innovation professional, you might imagine it is difficult to sell the following plan to management: “I’m going to scan the market, propose things that are working well elsewhere, tweak it so we can do it legally, then call it ‘innovation’ and make it generate money”.

Probably, management is not that excited by this proposal, which is unlikely to be much different to what its New Product Development people are doing anyway.

But consider the alternate plan, the one which I’ve observed is actually pitched to management: “I’m going to create brand new things without precedent, rely on your personal support to get them implemented without a budget, throw them into the market, and cross my fingers that we’ll generate value”.

Perhaps I overdramatize, but that, in my experience, is what most innovation programmes come up with.

I think innovation professionals, as a group, mistakenly believe their role is to create genuinely new things.  When, surely, their role is to make stuff happen outside the scope of what the business ordinarily does. Whether or not the stuff is “new”.

One of the reasons I especially love what we’re doing at Spigit, by the way, is that we use large crowds of people to find unusual things a business might do.

My observation is that such crowds do come up with great ideas, ideas which are truly unprecedented. Most of the time, they come up with things that have been tried elsewhere, and which can be usefully brought to bear. And sometimes, they propose the most outlandish, most ridiculous things you can (not) imagine.

Then, when you ask crowds to choose the things they think are the best ideas, invariably what you get is a list of the most possible ideas. The things that have a chance to be implemented, rather than the things that would actually transform.

That is a very good thing, in my view. Innovation systems are there to find and classify things it is possible to  change, not to dream up the most unusual change possible, whether not it can be implemented.

My point in writing all this is to point out that innovation professionals are not research professionals. They’re not the people who are there to create new frontiers of knowledge and practice.

But they are the ones that should be taking what others have created and working out how to make money from them. Because if the innovation team isn’t doing that, who is?

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