The Big Innovation Lie

Do you ever feel like you’ll never be able to invent anything new?
Whatever you can think of, you can be sure someone else out there has already thought about it. (In fact, someone out there has probably already written a very similar article to this one!)

It’s extremely difficult to be FIRST.

You have to be pretty damn lucky to be the first one to have a brainwave that sparks a genuine breakthrough or a new solution to a known problem. Whatever your cool idea is, you can bet your bottom euro that someone has already thought about it and made an effort to do it.

This can stop many innovators in their tracks. It can cause a sense of inertia and an attitude of “what’s the point?”. It can feel like everything has already been done.

Global innovation and you

But let’s think about this for a moment. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Throughout history, people strewn across the globe have solved their parallel problems through innovation – completely independently of each other. Different cultures have nurtured similar methods for harvesting, baking bread, sewing clothes, creating art, building houses. The difference in modern times is that we now know more than ever before about what other people are doing.

Even back in 1899, Charles Holland Duell – the Commissioner of US Patent office – was quoted to have said “Everything that can be invented has been invented”. True attribution or not, this appeared to be many people’s genuine belief, because society was becoming more aware of the inventions made elsewhere in the world. We now of course know that there is no end to innovation. We’ve seen millions of more inventions since. But because we hear about them faster than ever, we may sometimes feel the same way; “It’s all been done”.

Take brand names, for example.

These days, it’s so quick and easy to secure a domain name and to trademark a word. We may feel that “all the good ones are taken”. Businesses are more frequently making up nonsensical names like Zalando, Schpock and Wii.

The world of innovation is a busy place; that much is true.

And here’s why you shouldn’t care:

The biggest lie of innovation is that it’s critical to be first.

The truth is, you don’t have to be first to be successful. You don’t even have to be first to be considered an innovator. Innovation is about using a creative approach to solving a problem – and this can be done regardless of whether someone else has already found one solution that works.

The fact that someone has already invented a particular product or service means that…

  • There’s an identified market for the solution.
    If others are working on it, it means you are on the right track. There is demand, there is interest and there are opportunities out there. The same way seagulls flock to a fishing boat, innovative businesses can see where there is a potential gap in the market.
  • You can watch and learn.
    If someone else is addressing the same challenges, take a look at how they do it and learn from them. What’s working? What’s not working? What are the customers saying? How can you do it better? A great example is VHS vs Betamax. Both were great innovations. One was first. The other went on to be the standard video format for decades. Which one would you rather have invested in?
  • Someone else can pave the way for you.
    The history books are full of trailblazers who were the first to land on foreign shores. However, these were also the ones who paid the highest price. They took all the risk and often got little reward. Being first can be a huge sacrifice. Being second or third or tenth, on the other hand, means that there is already an established customer base ready for the next generation of solutions. When Sharp produced the first camera phone in 2000, they probably weren’t too upset about not having launched the very first mobile phone. Instead, their invention was built on the success of every previous mobile phone made.

Innovation is, and will continue to be, an important part of any thriving business. We need to constantly look at ways in which we can improve our customers’ experience – without worrying about whether or not someone somewhere has already beat us to it.

If you’re not first, you can still be the best – and that’s what innovation serves to do.

 

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Don’t fear the Marmite

Love and hate - credit to Baro24If you’re anything like me, you have an inner drive to be accepted, listened to and loved, especially by the people who really matter in your life. When it comes to business, the same applies. We want our customers – the people who really matter to our business – to accept us, listen to us and love our brand. But does that sometimes mean that we play a bit safe, become a bit bland – or even boring?

A fellow marketer at a creative agency told me about a recent direct mail campaign he had carried out, targeting prospects within the pharmaceutical industry. The letter itself was laid out in the form of a doctor’s prescription sheet, ordering the “patient” to take a hefty dose of the agency’s services. So far, all is well and good. Clever, but nothing too controversial.

However, for the envelopes, he chose to use a red ink stamp with the official-looking statement “Important medical documents inside”. This, as it turned out, stirred up a few emotions! The phone started ringing. Some were congratulating him on a cool, eye-catching and fun campaign, but others had a few bones to pick. Some felt it was unethical and deceptive – and one person even explained how she had hand-delivered the mailer to her colleague who was at home on sick leave, thinking it was crucial that she received it.

Now, regardless of whether the recipient loved or hated the campaign, it’s likely that they will remember it.

Some may place the agency on their wish list for future creative work; some may blacklist them for the foreseeable future. So – does this mean the campaign was successful or unsuccessful?

Some would argue that this is “natural selection” in the marketing world and that the unhappy targets weren’t a good match for the agency in the first place. Others might say that a campaign that aggravates part of your audience is inherently flawed.

In my personal opinion, I think the campaign was risky – but that was also what made it great! Some of the greatest artists, creators and leaders of our time have been both loved and hated, because they refuse to play it safe. So why can’t businesses do the same? You may face some tough commentary, but you may also gain some superbly dedicated advocates along the way.

Allow your brand to ruffle a few feathers!

(Image credit to BaRo24: baro24.deviantart.com)

How to manage creativity

We’re all operating in a world driven by innovation. Product life cycles are shorter than ever before, business start and expand overnight, the cloud computing revolution enables the instant turn-on and shutdown of resources at the click of a button… Entire industry landscapes change and evolve at a higher rate than many of us can keep up with.

As businesses, we try to make as much sense of this as we can. We often find ourselves on the sidelines, watching the game to see which side is winning before joining them on the pitch to help score a few goals.

The most successful companies don’t do that. They’re busy re-writing the rule book and sacking the referee.

Creativity and innovation go hand in hand and are essential to not only entrepreneurship but to the sustained success of established businesses. Unfortunately, many managers don’t know how to manage creativity. It is considered an elusive concept and less direct in its result generation compared to streamlining efficiencies or improving processes.

The first instinct of a manager is to refuse to consider ideas that are challenging and “impossible” (i.e. never been done before) – killing ground-breaking concepts.

“Revolutionary ideas come about when we doubt our existing view of the world,” says Alan Iny, co-author with Luc de Brabandere of Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity. “In this respect, true leaders must develop the capacity for radical originality: they must re-imagine and reinvent the world in totally unexpected ways. By doing that, they can create a culture that is open to creative risk-taking and an environment where failure is accepted as part of the creative process.”

Failure makes a great teacher but a lousy friend. A successful creative culture will nurture the process of generating enough ideas and hypotheses to counteract any setbacks from failures – but there will be no focus on failure as a word, which is negatively charged. Instead, it’s all about building resilience where the learnings are part of the creative journey and help form the backdrop for new innovation.

As for encouraging and maintaining the creative streak in our organisations; that’s going to be the next big challenge.
A recent Harvard Business School colloquium on creativity landed in the viewpoint that “One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.”

I like the sound of that.