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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Sides

Someone is saying there are two models of innovation. Some people say innovation is simply an investment, and that anybody can do it with enough money. Others say it is simply difficult, that good ideas are merely rare and it's just hard to innovate.

They're both wrong.

Where Does Innovation Come From?

Innovation comes from creativity and focus. Creativity is the willingness to try different ideas and map them onto what you are working on. Focus is the ability to turn away even great ideas in order to develop a clear, simple, easy-to-use product. This approach produces iconic results that are valid for the market because it's obvious what their benefits are. This is the fearless approach.

If you have the right mindset, this technique is not as difficult as it looks. But your typical fat corporate entity operates based on fear: the fear of failure, the fear of being fired because you are a renegade, the fear of trying new things because if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In such a world, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down quick.

That's not my world, and I have great sympathy for people who live in that world yet still want to break out and be creative. But consider where they might be working.

Large corporate environments are afraid to take the creative angle on a product. They will stick with what works, and if they are not successful this often means slavishly copying what is already successful. They are afraid of trying something new.

Large corporations operate according to a time-tested investment technique: diversity. The more diverse the investment, the lower the chance of failure. Once again, this is a fear-based choice.

This technique is fundamentally incompatible with focus because you want to diversify your product portfolio, like Sony, which makes thousands of products. Their motivation is to satisfy each market individually to achieve 100% penetration into their marketplaces: there's a product for everybody.

Unfortunately, this technique can't really work. When you aren't focused on a small number of products, you unintentionally water down the quality of each one. Pretty soon nobody wants your products because their design is diluted, their user experience is lowest-common-denominator, and their quality is simply insufficient.

But let's take the flip-side of the argument: the focused, iconic result doesn't always prevail. In order to make this approach work, you have to do almost everything right. The product must necessarily have a really important hook, a life-changing aspect to it.

Once in a Generation

Game-changing ideas seem to come only once per generation. Like a bolt from the blue they make people think differently about their world. They transform daily life, business, and even relationships.

When the iPhone came out, I compared it with holding the future in your hands. It is true that before the iPhone, almost all smartphone devices employed a small screen and had a keyboard. The idea of using a touchscreen device in everyday life was suddenly upon us.

Some say that all information should be free. That technology is free and that once something can be demonstrated, it becomes fair game for everyone. Some say that music, books, movies must all be free.

They are wrong.

All of these forms of content and invention take time and effort to develop. They are the result of sweat from the brows of many good people. A writer of a book generally believes that their content is their own and that they should in fact be paid for their contributions to the art.

But like the baker who gives away the tasty samples so you will go get more, sometimes the artist will release one of their works in a form that can be shared. But that doesn't mean that all their works should be shared as well.

The same is true of the intellectual property that makes advances in technology.

How To Compete?

The best way to compete with innovation is to innovate. Show your best. All ideas don't have to look the same.

But to do that, you have to be able to support both innovation and focus. This means that you will have to start doing things in a very different way. This means the very structure of your corporation must be different. The very way of developing must change.

Personally, I'm don't really believe that most corporations are up to the task.

You will have to rebuild your corporation from the ground up, step by step. Each incorrect layer might be a mistake, so you should be very careful how you do this.

But, make no mistake, it can be done. For instance, Microsoft has shown that the iconic iPhone interface is not the only valid interface. It can be countered by using good ideas and taking a chance. Being fearless. But Microsoft, with its Windows-based corporate mentality, has a long way to go!

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