World War “I”: Innovation, Competitive Advantage, and Killing Great Ideas
A world constantly striving to advance innovation is a world of controlled war; the fight for competitive advantage is more cutthroat than ever, with roughly one-third of business owners noting that, while customers are easier to find and more responsive to marketing efforts than in previous years, the intensity of marketplace competition is extreme enough to cause serious setback and challenges.
Rivalry has always been a driving force behind the consumer-motivated world economy, but much like in times of actual war, in a financial state that’s as rapidly fluctuating as ours, the battle to innovate is rocking the foundations of many long-held expectations about what it means to stay ahead.
Open Innovation and Sequestered Invention
“A world shaped by innovation rewards those who obtain leverage from smart uses of global resources,” says John Kao, author of Innovation Nation. That may be so, but there’s a thin line between taking advantage of your position and aggressively hoarding or hiding ideas. A few years back, when the Chinese government sought to lay down “indigenous invention” policies — meaning that certain business exploits could only be taken on by Chinese companies or Chinese companies in joint ventures with foreign entities — the international sphere basically lost its marbles. While the claim was that it was a tactic for fostering domestic innovation, it was perceived as an act of suppression, and one that made the comparatively slow expansion in the U.S. that much more troubling.
On a smaller scale, take the impact of proprietary or versioned gadgets and features; from a business standpoint, releasing updated, product-specific accessories is common, and a quick way to bump sales and adoptions. But in general, the practice makes customers grumble — why should they have to buy an entirely new product or pay to update a service, especially if they’re perfectly happy with what they already have? With integration now at the forefront of most company strategies, this solution could become wholly impractical going forward.
Attrition, Blockades, and Other Innovation Snipers
If the global economy is stuck in the middle of innovation warfare, it’s no help when the real problems are growing from domestic soil. Companies rarely realize how often they get in the way of their own progress, or how truly detrimental it can be to implement innovation without foundation. The three examples that follow are the most common and, as is typically the case, highly preventable:
- Too many pre-launch iterations. How can the success of a product be accurately gauged by internal testing alone? Google does it right — almost every new product they release is introduced as a test. Early user feedback informs adjustments and allows the product to expand on its own, which not only gets them to market sooner, but ensures profitable market testing.
- Not putting projects out of their misery. Says Inc’s Stephen Wunker, “Many projects never really die, they just fade away.” A sad truth and the byproduct, he says, of unmeetable expectations, divergent decision-makers, and teams that lose valuable players to higher-priority efforts. The fix? Governance. Innovation is only as useful as its infrastructure, and it’s in no one’s best interest to apathetically support something that’s already falling apart.
- Starting research without knowing what to look for. Total reliance on traditional market testing is something that many companies consider a safe bet, but as a rule, innovation isn’t safe. We talk a lot about risk and reward, embracing failure, etc., but consider the very valuable lesson from the late Steve Jobs: when question about what level of development research Apple did for the iPad, he answered, “None. It isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want.” In a nutshell, Jobs’ approach was to find gaps between what people said they wanted and what was available, then create a product based on the hidden need within that chasm. Innovation means focusing on where you aren’t, not where you’ve already been.
Despite the prevalence of this so-called innovation world war, the goal shouldn’t be to win. There’s no concrete end-game here, and in this context, peace would be equal to failure and inertia. Businesses today can, and should, strive to conquer and defend market space — but they’d better be ready to put up a serious fight.