The term “innovation” may just be the biggest buzzword of the last two decades.
Strategy gurus have identified 15 different variants of innovation ranging from “red ocean” innovation to “blue ocean” innovation; from incremental innovation to frugal innovation; from disruptive innovation to sustainable innovation; etc. Innovation buzzword bingo, while sometimes parodied, is real and here to stay.
The “business” of innovation itself may be one of the best innovations in itself. And it is big business. Armies of expensive consultants, often from some of the world’s best business schools, dole out innovation advice to salivating corporations and their leaders every day. Productized perfectly and marketed impeccably, these beads of wisdom permeate to all segments: large incumbents, startups, individual entrepreneurs, and other consultants. Like bees to honey, the industry is hooked and the dopamine-induced innovation cravings continue. Companies are betting on innovation across their entire business models — from servicing customers, improving their supply chains, or delivering breakthrough products and services. They are spending more money on Research & Development, and on acquiring patents, to corner the next big thing.
The media has played a role too, expounding the role innovation has to play in growth, and further fueling the flames. Explanations of innovation, conferences, books, and articles on the virtues and failures of innovation abound. The latest skirmish receiving global attention came from Jill Lepore in her essay titled The Disruption Machine, where she shook the very foundation of Disruptive Innovation — the big daddy of modern innovation strategy. She questioned everything – from the validity of the research, the case studies, and resulting theory and principles. The patriarch of the theory, Clayton Christensen, immediately responded with a swift and curt rebuttal.
Unfortunately many of these theories, as well intentioned as they are, don’t explain how innovation happens in real life; they only explain the consequence. They are useful for understanding what has happened, but not very useful at prescribing how to make it happen.
What’s more (or maybe because of this), many so-called innovators resort to asking current customers in existing or focus groups in trending market categories, what they want, and delivering exactly to those specifications. This can be helpful at best, but severely limiting at worst. Too often the result is an incremental solution that captures an adjacent market category, solves an existing customer defined problem in a slightly better way, or targets visible “white spaces” which everyone can see, and therefore compete in. Nothing says it better than this quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.
The best innovators instinctively get this and embody a certain mindset. They don’t necessarily set out to “disrupt” industries, or capture a “white space” or to take a step into the blue or red ocean per se. They challenge the status quo. They know that transformational change is really about solving an existing problem in a dramatically better way, or framing a previously unknown problem and inventing a new solution.
Here are a few examples of innovations that illustrate these two approaches:
- Under Armor – “There has to be something better,” thought Kevin Plank when he noticed that the T-shirts he and his University of Maryland teammates wore underneath their football pads were always heavy with sweat. That simple statement launched a revolution in athletic apparel.
- NEST Labs – The idea for a better thermostat came to co-founder Tony Fadell when designing his vacation home. Unimpressed with available models he decided to invent a new one, which he then realized he could build a company around.
- iPhone – This was actually three separate products that were revolutionary on their own – the iPod, the mobile phone, and the Internet communications device – combined into a new revolutionary one based on Steve Jobs’ vision of an unknown, or an undescribed need. Predictions abounded but were off the mark, to say the least.
- Snapchat – When told by classmates in his Stanford product design class that no one would want impermanent photos, Evan Spiegel didn’t listen. He framed his idea as a fun extension to texting that put spontaneity back in the digital world, not a competitor to Instagram.
What is an aspiring innovator to do? Here are some ideas.
- Learn from case studies of success and failures to gain a sense of what has worked, and what hasn’t worked in the past. The 2014 CNBC Disruptor 50 list is a great example.
- Learn from what Peter Diamandis pioneered through incentivized competitions that define big moonshots as problems and then crowd-source innovative solutions. Or through hackathons like the M-Prize.
- Co-innovate with your customers through Design Thinking, which makes the end user the main focal point for any solution, and applies the values of empathy and diversity to problem solving using a repeatable process.
- While the traditional venture funded model is an option, keep in mind that 3 out of 4 venture funded start-ups usually fail. An alternative may be to use socially driven crowd-funding approaches to validate your ideas and proposed solutions to problems.
- For larger, incumbent companies in particular, separate long-term thinking about customer needs from the day-to-day pressures of your business, like Google has with Google X. Use your marketing department to develop moonshots and discovering insights and analyzing current needs and future trends.
- Integrate diversity into your efforts, and encourage experiments that may fail (preferably quickly), and that you can learn from. Stay relevant. Innovation guru Frans Johansson says, “We live in unpredictable times where the rules are changing so fast that formulas for success are disintegrating. Fortunes can turn. Market leaders can fall. Innovations can become obsolete”
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This story originally appeared on SAP Business Trends.