Innovation has become like a religion in business today, with “innovate or die” as its mantra. When a company succeeds, people attribute its good fortune to superior innovation. When it fails, people say it lacked the ability to innovate, no matter how many new products it launched. The message is simple: you need to disrupt to survive.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that there is no shortage of people offering silver bullets. They promise a “secret sauce” that will unlock the creativity in your organization. They preach disruption, open innovation, lean launchpads or whatever else is the flavor of the day with the passion and surety of evangelical ministers.
The truth is that there is no one true path to innovation. Compare any two great innovators and they inevitably do things very differently. So if you choose to emulate one, you are in a sense rejecting the other, which may be equally or even more successful. The only real path forward is to define the problems you seek to solve and build your own innovation playbook.
Innovate The Apple Way?
There are few companies that can boast innovative success like Apple can. Products like the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad weren’t just wildly successful in the marketplace, they redefined entire categories. If there is any company managers dream about being like, it’s probably Apple.
And Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, has very clear ideas about what it takes to create breakthrough products. “It’s people who care enough to keep thinking about something until they find the simplest way to do it,” he says. “They keep thinking about something until they find the best way to do it.” Sounds like good advice.
He also has very clear ideas about what not to do, such as creating innovation labs, which he thinks is a really bad idea, going as far as to say, “A lot of companies have innovation departments, and this is always a sign that something is wrong when you have a VP of innovation or something. You know, put a for-sale sign on the door,” he says.
That sounds like it makes sense, but then you look at Google and that’s exactly what they’ve done with Google X. Microsoft and IBM also have research divisions and have successfully innovated for decades, across multiple technology cycles. Apple, meanwhile, still relies on the iPhone, launched in 2007, for roughly two thirds of its revenue.
Which Technologies Are Transformational?
Peter Thiel is a true Silicon Valley icon. An original member of the PayPal Mafia, he’s become one of the most powerful investors in tech, giving early backing to blockbuster companies such as Facebook, Yelp and LinkedIn. Yet he has become unenamoured with technology lately, saying that we wanted flying cars, but got 140 characters instead.
His point is that while earlier technologies, like the space program, the personal computer and the Internet were transformative, today’s are incremental at best. “You have dizzying change where there’s no progress,” he says.
Yet I would argue that 140 characters are actually better than a flying car. Sure, we’re not scooting around like the Jetsons, but we clearly live in a world vastly transformed. While earlier technologies allowed us to master energy and matter, newer advances are giving us something far more valuable, unleashing the power of human potential.
Consider that the journal Nature recently noted that the average scientific paper today has four times as many authors as in 1950. The work they are doing is also far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past. Communication technologies have helped make that possible and it’s powering entirely new fields like genomics, nanotechnology and robotics.
Those, in turn, are creating new possibilities, such as curing cancer and creating a new energy revolution. It is often technologies that seem useless at first that end up becoming the most transformational.
Should You Listen To Customers More—Or Less?
Henry Ford offered cars in any color “as long as it’s black.” Steve Jobs, pointed out that “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Many great innovators are iconoclasts, who forge their own path. After all, how can you create something truly new by asking people their opinions about what exists today?
Yet IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, Bernard Meyerson, believes customers are an important part of the innovation process. “You’re never certain as to what’s going to be commercially fantastic,” he told me. “That’s why we take an unconstrained approach to research and innovation. We want to know about everything that can help us solve a problem.”
“Our customers can’t tell us about a future that doesn’t exist yet,” he continued. “But they can tell us about unresolved problems and we can get to work on them. Addressing a really grand challenge like Watson can begin 5 or 10 years before the result is seen in public. It was a science project, but with business problems in mind.”
These widely divergent views create a dilemma for anyone looking to innovate. Henry Ford and Steve Jobs built revolutionary new products. IBM has innovated for over a century, consistently creating new businesses to replace old ones that run out of steam. All, in their own way have been enormously successful. So which should we follow?
Defining Your Innovation Playbook
Clearly, searching for “one true path” to innovation is nothing more than a distraction. It is more likely to set us on a wild goose chase and waste enormous amounts of time and money than anything else. What we need is to identify our own path to innovation and then gather the tools we need to get where want to go.
As I previously explained in Harvard Business Review, the best way to move forward is to map the innovation space by asking two basic questions:
1. How well is the problem defined?: Some problems we are able to define fairly narrowly. For example, when Steve Jobs set out to create the iPod, he defined it as “1,000 songs in your pocket.” That made the path to the solution clear as well, he needed to identify someone to supply a hard drive with the right technical specifications. After that, creating the iPod was mainly a matter of design, which was a core Apple capability.
2. Who is best placed to solve it?: Once Jobs defined the iPod problem, it was clear that he needed to find a disk drive manufacturer who could meet his specifications. But other times, the proper domain isn’t so easy to identify. Often, the solution requires a synthesis across various domains.
These are relatively simple questions, but they allow us to map the innovation space and narrow down our options considerably with an innovation matrix.
Once we’ve mapped the innovation space, we can narrow down our choices even further by taking into account the capabilities we have available to us. Firms like IBM and Microsoft, for example, invest heavily in basic research. Others firms deploy different strategies to identify and access important discoveries in the academic world.
In the case of the iPod, while Steve Jobs had defined the iPod’s hard drive problem to exact specifications, Apple couldn’t solve it alone and needed to take an open approach. Other aspects of the iPod, such as software and design, were areas where Apple had strong capabilities and so were more of a typical engineering problem.
Some companies, such as Uber and Airbnb, find previously undefined solutions for existing technology with well-defined domains. They push the limits of the marketplace rather than technology and are able to disrupt existing firms by doing so. These disruptive innovators tend win with new business models rather than superior technology.
So who are the true innovators? Clearly all of them are, but they work off of very different playbooks that are geared to both their internal capabilities and the markets they seek to serve. Some, like Google and IBM, create breakthrough technologies. Others, like Apple, recombine existing technologies to design superior products. Still others disrupt the marketplace with new business models.
We need to leave to leave behind the innovation fairy tales about and deal with innovation as it really happens. Coming up with the “next big thing” is less a matter of epiphany and more a matter of identifying the right set of tools for the right job.
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