Is What You’re Doing Really Innovation or Just a Nice Idea?

January 27, 2014

What is innovation?

Ask a room full of people this question and you’re going to get a room full of different answers.  That’s actually what Jim Stikeleather, the Chief Innovation Officer at Dell did at the Frost & Sullivan 8th Annual Innovation in New Product Development in New Orleans, an event in which Wellspring Worldwide was a proud sponsor.

So what was the verdict?  I doubt everyone will ever be on the exact same page, but Stikeleather made a very convincing argument for his point.  He said, “Innovation creates value by solving unmet needs.”

We might not know what those needs are yet, but that seems to be a comprehensive definition.   Stikeleather broke it down a bit further, and explained the equation then for true innovation looks something like this:

new ideas + forward thinking + feasible + viable + valuable

One of the points Stikeleather made that I agreed wholeheartedly on was the role of technology and how many people are confused by what is truly innovation, and what is what I call a “me too technology.”  The perfect example of this is the iPod.

Apple’s iPod really was a big game-changer for that organization, and some would argue that it is what pushed Apple even further up the ladder of technology companies.  I don’t disagree.  I do disagree, however, that the iPod was an innovative technology.

Why?  What did we have before the iPod?  We had an MP3 player.  Subtract a few buttons and guess what – you’ve got an iPod.  So what did Apple do that was innovative?  Removing those buttons and paring it down to one central button was a tweak, not an innovation.

So what has Apple done that’s innovative?  Think again back to that iPod.  How did you get your music on to your MP3 player.  I used to upload my CDs.  I haven’t bought a CD in years now.  So what does almost everyone use now?  iTunes.

The iTunes addition is the true innovation, the process on the device itself that allows users to take their iPods to a level that MP3 players couldn’t get to before.  It was, as the equation states, a new idea that was forward thinking, very feasible and viable because Apple had the power by which to create it, and undoubtedly valuable.  That in my mind is the biggest argument of them all.  If an innovation doesn’t create value, why bother doing it?

By the previously outlined definition of innovation, that value also solved an unmet need – it provided the necessary content for the device in a way that users had never been able to access it before.  They could make their handheld iPod the central location for their entertainment, and later their communication with the release of the iPhone.

What can we learn from this, as we attempt to uncover and develop our own innovations?  It all goes back to questions and finding that unmet need.  The MP3 player was a great idea, but there was an unmet created by this new technology.  And that’s another lesson that is at the root of this all that I took away from Stikeleather’s presentation.  It’s not the technology that drives innovation and change.  It facilitates change that will take place.

So back to the original question of what is innovation?  I like Stikeleather’s definition and I do agree it fits, but I think it could go even further.  Innovation, to me, creates value by solving unmet needs in a way that will fundamentally change behavior.   It’s that disruptive change that raises that good idea to an innovation breakthrough.



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