Questioning innovation

Q: What’s your problem with innovation?

A: Although I am an innovation consultant, I spend most of my time trying to kill bad innovation or persuade companies to do less. And here’s why. Big companies tend to see innovation through a very narrow lens, essentially creating news by launching stuff – anything and everything. Doesn’t matter about the quality, it’s about being seen to do something.

Q: Do you have an example?

A: I once was training a very large global company and one of the participants said his work plan required him to “launch seven things by the end of the year”. When I asked him what other criteria would be applied to those innovations, he just said that they had launched. His colleague sitting next to him then said something very profound: “In this company it’s very easy to launch something. What’s nigh on impossible is to stop something launching.”

I always tell the story of when I was asked to consult on a wireless iron. The iron stored your e-mail and phone number; if you left it on, it called you at work and told you to drive home and switch it off. When I asked them why they were launching such a ludicrous innovation they replied, “Because it’s the only internet-connected iron in the world”, as if that was justification to bring such a doomed and over-engineered solution to market.

Q: Why are firms making these mistakes?

A: Companies tend to launch innovation because they get bored. They get bored of their existing products and they post-rationalise that, as a result, the customer is bored too. Most often, the customer hasn’t even heard of the existing solution. Awareness is still low, penetration and trial lower, yet despite this and in order to give themselves something to do, the product managers and R&D conspire to launch something else.

Q: How should it work?

A: I always say innovation is like light from a star. It takes a long time to travel and reach your eye, and the light you see today finished a really, really long time ago. And so it is with innovation. Just around the time that the customer is getting to hear about it, is just about the time the product team is getting bored and pulls the plug.

Some big companies in fast-moving consumer goods haven’t changed their fundamental technology for 50 years – think Corn Flakes and Dove bar soap. However, they view innovation through a broader lens. They see renovation, positioning, packaging and communication as a legitimate form of innovation. They talk about the same product to new audiences or in a new way and the result is it feels new.

Just look at the Dove “Real Women Renovation” or Persil “Dirt is Good” as evidence of how billion-dollar brands can grow more through talking in a new way about an existing thing than constantly confusing the market by launching new things.