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The Cult of Innovation

March 20, 2007


I have written a number of posts about innovation — real innovation. Dan Saffer, writing for BusinessWeek, reminds us that much of the rhetoric about innovation nowadays isn’t discussing real innovation at all [“The Cult of Innovation,” 5 March 2007]. It’s more often about the kind of “new and improved” hyperbole we expect to hear from advertising agencies than it is about true innovation. Saffer writes:

“A flood of recent articles, books, podcasts, and blogs offers the following advice to businesses in today’s global marketplace: To remain competitive, you must innovate, innovate, innovate. You must spread innovation throughout your company like fertilizer, the experts exhort. And everyone within the organization—custodians and executives alike—had better embrace innovation lest they imperil the company itself. The I-word is everywhere, becoming this generation’s ‘efficiency’ or ‘Total Quality Management.’ Indeed, BusinessWeek‘s newest supplement calls itself in: Inside Innovation.

It’s not hard to see where this deification may lead: innovation for innovation’s sake. For proof, simply walk down the aisles of any supermarket and take note of all the “New and Improved!” labels. What it gets us, in other words, is purple ketchup and Crystal Pepsi—products that no one needs and few actually desire.”

Saffer tells us what he thinks “innovation” means. “Innovation,” he writes, “is traditionally understood as a combination of insight and invention, with insight being the ‘Aha!’ moment and invention being the company’s muscle to make it happen.” In an earlier post, I wrote something very similar: A lot of innovations are the result of someone with a passion asking questions about things that others either put up with or never wonder about. Often the result causes people to slap their foreheads and ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?” There is a big difference, however, between ideas and innovations. Ideas without actions are simply dreams and never result in that “head thumping” moment. Innovations are ideas in action. All innovators know that the path between idea and innovation is a difficult and often long one.


Just as there is a difference between ideas and innovations, there is a difference between creative thinkers and innovators. Creative thinkers are capable of generating lots of ideas, but not all of them have equal value. An innovator is someone who comes up with a “head slapping” idea that is actually useful. That is what I think Saffer is trying to say.

[The traditional definition of innovation] “is all well and good, but one crucial aspect of the definition is missing: the ability to judge the inspiration and determine whether it is worthwhile to spend the company’s resources on the invention. Without this judgment, innovation is just The New, and new isn’t always better. It’s a louder sizzle, not a juicier steak. For innovation to be truly important, it needs to resonate with consumers. Insights need to be derived from the unmet needs and desires of people, not simply the company’s feeling that it needs to innovate.”

Put into a mathematical formula, innovation = new X valuable X realized. If any of those parts is missing (i.e., = 0) then you can rest assured whatever you’re discussing is not an innovation. What is missing in most of Saffer’s examples is the “valuable” part of the formula. Purple ketchup may have been new and on the shelf, but it wasn’t really valuable. Value, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. On this point, Saffer writes:

“The reason we covet certain objects has little to do with how ‘innovative’ they are. Instead, we favor certain products because they meet our needs, even if they are needs we didn’t know we had. The reason so many of us love our iPods, the No. 1 example cited by innovation gurus, isn’t because they are innovative. We love them because they allow us to listen to music and manage our music collections as never before. TiVo offers a similar benefit to television viewers. Finally, I can subscribe to my favorite TV shows and watch them at my leisure. I didn’t know I even wanted—no, needed—TiVo until I had it. In other words, it has real meaning for me and for millions of other consumers.”

I argue that Saffer’s “real meaning” is just another term for “valuable.” In other words, he may not consider the iPod very innovative, but I would — and so would most Apple shareholders. Saffer worries that the constant search for innovative (or at least new & improved) products could result in the loss of mature, but still very useful, products (Windows XP vs Vista immediately springs to mind).

“Innovation-obsessed companies can fall into another trap: that of discarding or neglecting perfectly fine products to seek out new ones. Some products, especially breakthrough products, often take time to reach mass adoption. (Remember when critics claimed “iPod” stood for “Idiots Price Our Devices?”) If you are constantly seeking the new, then the established, no matter how useful or usable it is, will seem dull by comparison, in need of sprucing up. But this is false innovation, driven by the company, not by customer needs. What’s needed isn’t always the new or the unique, and it certainly isn’t always more, as in more features, more gizmos, more newness. Sometimes it’s less. Nintendo’s Wii, for instance, has far fewer features than Sony’s PS3, and yet the Wii is such a joy to use that it has been far outselling the PS3. So, sometimes it requires answering the simple but all-important question: Do people really need this? Or, more important, would this product enrich someone’s life?”

As a designer, Saffer concludes his article with a bit of philosophical thought about design and innovation:

“Design as a discipline and as a way of working has so much more to offer—methods for research, brainstorming, conceptualizing, making products, and, yes, thinking. Innovation, at least in its popular usage, has none of these. Most important, it has no history, only a present and a future: the never-ending quest for the new and the unique, and, only occasionally, the better. But without context for consumers, the cult of innovation will eventually be forgotten along with any important lessons learned, including the most important one: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Rather than simply making novel products and services, we should strive to make better, more meaningful ones. Now that would be a true innovation.”

I beg to differ with Saffer that innovation has nothing to do with “methods for research, brainstorming, conceptualizing, making products, [and] thinking.” Some innovation does have a history. Innovation often takes place at the intersection of disciplines (see my post on The Medici Effect). Each discipline brings with it a history and artifacts. When those artifacts are applied in a new and valuable way in another area, they become innovations. Real innovators do think differently, do conceptualize differently, and do pursue implementation of their ideas differently than others. That is why I agree with Saffer that we should not use the term “innovation” lightly.

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