Why Do We Innovate?

Posted on January 26, 2016

In an information age, and in the midst of a technology revolution, we are constantly bombarded by messages about innovation. Innovation is a popular and rather overused marketing term but what does it actually mean? Any product is now deemed to be innovative just by being new to the market.

But to truly be innovative, something has to be more than just an improvement on the status quo. It might be a combination of two ideas in a novel way, or perhaps a totally new idea. Either way, to qualify as truly innovative, it must do something that was not previously possible.

Some great examples that fit the criteria are Google’s car that can drive itself, Wikipedia’s encyclopaedia that is written by anyone and everyone, and in 1861 when predicting the future became possible with the first Weather Forecast.

Some innovations have created entirely new spaces in the market, like weather forecasting and the internet. Others, such as Wikipedia, digital cameras and the Kindle, have severely disrupted the market and produced significant casualties.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, plunged from market leader to out of business in just 10 years. It simply couldn't compete with Wikipedia's continual updates and responsiveness to user interests. Kodak, the first name in photography, invented the digital camera but didn't market it for fear of cannibalising its own film business. They filed for bankruptcy in 2013. 

Doing something that is currently not possible is very hard to visualise. This means that when it happens it comes out of the blue and is hard to compete with. For the same reason the innovator also finds it difficult to bridge the initial scepticism of the public. 

Innovation often happens outside of a product's home industry. Google's self-drive car isn't a product of the auto industry; neither is the Tesla electric vehicle. Regulations and standards within any given industry are usually loaded with assumptions from the status quo that inhibit change. Check out the google steering wheel issue. From outside of the industry thinking is freed up. A point worth noting is that mostly your customers are outside of your industry.

Genuine innovation, such as Google's self-drive car, Uber's new business model for taxis, or the many of the advances in the field of genetics, often exists in spaces where legislative frameworks and codes of ethics either don't exist or can be 'stretched' to suit market disruptors and their creations. 

Alex St John, the former Microsoft guru now based in NZ, has very clear views on innovation. He believes that it is only failure or disaster that drives innovation, and that nobody innovates voluntarily.

Many in the Tech industry are noticing an apparent fatigue and resistance to change. In a way it's similar to Toffler's predicted information overload. But whereas Toffler predicted that it would result in physiological and societal responses to stress, what is starting to be noticed is people’s defence mechanisms to rapid change itself. 

To learn a new technology requires investments of time, effort, thinking and adapting (or as Toffler put it learning, unlearning and relearning). Unless there is a compelling reason to invest in this effort, many people are avoiding what they see as unnecessary change. 

Innovation causes change. Change can be empowering and also a source of stress. People are subconsciously measuring change on this slightly odd set of balance scales and if it tips toward the side of stress they will push back against the change. It’s not a new phenomenon but the rate of change means there is more stress which will result in more push back.

In their day-to-day jobs people are quite efficient in what they do. They won't be motivated to change unless there is a significant benefit, such as being able to do something they can’t do now. This might explain why in an industry such as medicine, in which an incredible array of new technology is now available, an archaic technology like the fax machine is still the standard way of doing B2B.

In addition, any new innovation is likely to be only one step in an integrated process. Introducing the new step not only adds to the level of uptake stress, it may often break the process or require it to be re-engineered. We may stand back and shake our heads at some of the practices that we see going on, but there are perfectly valid psychological and economic reasons as to why they're so ubiquitous.

New designs or changes that will impact or potentially help other people, must either integrate fully and seamlessly, or provide the capability to do something that otherwise can’t be done. And do so faster.

It is important that we budget the time and effort to keep pace and invest in our future as a way to reduce our own stress. Do you want to be the one to fall off the escalator, placing your career or the future success of your employer in jeopardy?

- Bryan Clarke


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