Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Innovation is a feature

As a marketer who was first an engineer, I am often guilty of larding up my marketing content with facts about features.  As we used to say at Texas Instruments, I can quote "feeds and speeds" all day long.  We can talk about faster processors or larger memories, more sophisticated storage devices and the ability to stream video at close to the speed of light.  And so on.  Marketers should get pilloried for this nonsense, because we are selling the steak and not the sizzle.  Marketers who talk about product features forget that people buy products to solve problems or to achieve some stature.  They buy the benefits, in other words.  I've often said that in the end few people care HOW something gets done as long as it gets done effectively.

This marketing problem has now fully transitioned into an innovation problem.  The reason this is an analogous problem is because executives are moving through their organizations and talking to their boards about innovation, as if innovation is a deliverable, an outcome or a benefit.  It is, in fact, none of those things.  Innovation at its best is a continuous process, at worst an occasional activity, but in either sense it is the HOW of something, not the WHAT.  Innovation is a feature, what it creates should deliver benefits to someone.  Yet how quickly we forget.

To many organizations, the idea of innovation is enticing.  They look at other companies that are "innovative" and gaze admiringly on all the new products and services that drive more revenue and profit.   It seems that all one must do is claim to be innovative and more profits and revenue will accrue.  When that fails, the nascent innovator then decides to actually become more innovative, trying to generate new ideas and move them into product or service development.  This is when they discover that innovation is not a deliverable, and during the implementation of an innovation capability or culture it certainly isn't a benefit, because attempting to "bolt on" an innovation process to a competent efficient culture is like dropping a modern 8 cylinder engine into a Model T.  In theory it should work, but the results often aren't all that appealing.  And in case you were wondering about the analogy, the modern 8 cylinder refers to the existing corporate processes and practices, which operate on "all cylinders" efficiently.  The Model T is the structure you try to build to use the existing processes in a new way, to innovate, and it typically ends badly.

Innovation is a feature of an organization or a culture.  It is not a benefit to customers.  In fact to many customers new innovative products aren't benefits, because these new capabilities require existing customers to change.  Some will change gladly, some will change if forced and some will never change.  So innovation may require that you piss off a portion of your existing customers and acquire a bunch of customers who have been ignored or overlooked, or who never considered your solutions before.  You get these customers because the innovations you create have benefits that they want or need.  And, it's also necessarily true that more innovation does not lead to more benefits.  Incremental innovation extends existing benefits to some degree, so lots of incremental innovation does not guarantee a lot of new benefits.  This is why so many corporations consider innovation a failure - there's a lot of activity but not much motion, because all of the effort is constrained to such a small space. 

Like any compelling phenomenon innovation has reached and passed its apex of awareness and promise and to some extent collapsed into the trough of disillusionment.  Now, new carnival barkers are promising better rewards through hyphenated innovation:  agile innovation, rapid innovation, design thinking innovation and so on.  Clearly, simple, general innovation is a significant disappointment, so we are working to re-categorize it rather than look at the misplaced expectations and lack of commitment.  Instead, simply strip it back to its base elements.  Ask:  what is innovation for?  What are we trying to deliver to customers?  What do they want or need?  Can we create that within our business, or must we rethink or re-imagine what our business is?  How disruptive must our thinking become?  What benefits does the customer need?  What problem must they solve?  What unmet needs could be addressed?  If you'll revert back to a simple question driven methodology, always keeping in mind that innovation is an activity or a feature, and not a deliverable or benefit, then innovation will take the place it rightfully occupies.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:42 AM


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