What’s the deal with Innovation?

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Innovation Idea

It sounds sexy so it must be good

Innovation is the business equivalent of sex. Everybody wants it, many claim to be doing it in abundance, only few actually are and if you are not careful it could end up killing you (bye bye Blockbuster, Kodak and Motorola)

Innovation is confusing. It seems to mean something different to everybody and it’s practiced in a million different ways. If you search Amazon it will deliver 61,733 books with innovation in the title and Google serves up a discrete 250,000,000 results.

So what’s the real deal with innovation? What does it even mean and is there some way of making the topic at least somewhat manageable?

Let’s start with definition. The word innovation originates from the Latin word innovare, which means to alter, renew or restore. I find this puzzling; the definition is not as dramatic or action packed as I thought it would be. If all that is required to innovate is to alter something, then no wonder every Tom, Dick and Harry are prancing around claiming to be doing it.

All innovation is not created equal

Innovation seems to be suffering from hyperinflation; the reason for this is to be found in the immensely lucrative promise of this word. Some of the world’s largest and most successful companies have risen to their stardom on the back of innovation; think Apple, Google, Amazon.

Who wouldn’t want a piece of that pie? Unfortunately, the desire to be associated with this kind of success has led to the extensive overuse of the term. When innovation is treated as a commodity, its meaning becomes diluted and the respect this fine art deserves dwindles.

Fortunately we do not all have to be a Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Jeff Bezos to be innovative, but we do have to actually contribute with something new that creates value in order to rightfully apply the term to ourselves.

The operative word here is value. Innovation without value is “just” an invention. Try searching “most useless inventions” and you will get a very long list of more or less bizarre contraptions from shoe umbrellas to baby-mops. I’m sure the inventors thought they were fantastic, but the market decided they did not provide sufficient value to become viable products.

Innovation is all about the practical application of inventions; it is about making the most of already invented technologies and making them better. “Better” can be many things, it can be smarter, faster, cheaper, tougher, simpler, easier etc. “Better” means supplying new or additional value to consumers.

If a product fails to deliver new or additional value, then consumers will reject it and it will not be an innovation.

The Innovation Map

Consider innovation as a map with four corners, four directions a company can take their innovative processes in. Imagine that North and South represent the innovations that aim to either create new markets or aim to manage existing markets respectively. Then imagine that East and West represent the amount of alterations used in the innovation, ranging in the East from minor change to, and sometime even a reduction of, technology, to the West where there is an extensive change in technology taking place.

Innovation Map

In the Disruptive North-East corner, we find the innovations that come sneaking into well established industries and disrupts them. Often by offering very similar products or services, but in a simpler and/or cheaper version, effectively making it possible for a completely new segment of consumers, who previously either couldn’t afford them or found them too complicated, to use the products.

In the Radical North-West corner, we have the innovations that dramatically change industries and/or societies. These are the true game changers, they take how things are usually done, and turns them on their heads, creating new market opportunities with new technologies and new products.

Then we have the South-East corner, if any position on the innovation map has a lesser status, it must the this corner. This is where Incremental innovations take place; the daily battle for survival for many companies, where innovation can seem like an overexerted attempt to remain relevant in the eyes of the consumers. Every new flavor, scent, color and shape that companies spew out of their production lines fall into this corner.

In the last corner, the South-West, we find the Sustaining and sometimes Breakout innovations. This is where good products are made even better. It is a bit of a tricky corner; the innovations that land here are the ones where the added value in terms of new technology is too great to be considered Incremental but not different enough to be labeled Radical.

The Innovation Map is a guide that can help you locate a particular innovation. Bear in mind that innovations by nature are ever evolving creatures, therefore products may well wander from one location on the map to another over time. For example when the first Smartphone saw the light of day, it was a radical innovation, it changed the mobile phone into a computer. But every new version of Smartphones since then have been innovated in order to manage the existing market, it has mainly done so by adding more and more features to the products, therefore the placement of the Smartphone has changed from initially being Radical to now being Sustaining.

I hope the Innovation Map will help you get some clarity on the subject of innovation and I would love to hear your take on it.