What Innovation Isn’t

Faceplant CC felixtsao What Innovation Isnt

My best friend’s nephew learned how to play piano by watching YouTube videos. He and his sister also mastered guitar this way. At 14-years-old, and with no formal instruction, he’s regularly publishing his own brand of electronic music to SoundCloud with. In their wildest dreams I’m sure Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page never suspected their purchase of YouTube would net them the world’s largest online music academy. And yet here we are.

Innovation rarely takes the form we imagine. Innovation isn’t the newest, greatest or shiniest thing out there. This is the mistaken assumption that often leads us to ruin. The most disruptive innovation is one whose time has come.

Innovation is about getting it right

What made the iPad revolutionary was timing. Sure,  it was aided by its combination of design aesthetic, computing power and portability at price that could get into millions of consumer’s hands. But the market was ready.

And while still a luxury item, the iPad was an expense gadget lovers and early adopters could legitimize because it was aspirational as well as practical. Today tens of millions of consumers, including school children–and even my grandmother–use an iPad daily.

microsoft wins again What Innovation Isnt

Microsoft made a tablet computer years before Apple. No one wanted it. Their innovations have largely been forgotten because they got the timing wrong. If people don’t understand, or don’t have access to a new tool, it has no purpose. It’s a hobby, not an innovation if the product is unaffordable or too difficult to utilize for the average person.

Where to look for innovation

SMS is still the killer mobile technology in my book. And it’s vastly under-utilized, especially in the U.S.

In Silicon Valley we pride ourselves on adoption of the newest technology. But in spite of our gusto for the latest and greatest, we haven’t come up with a solution for overloaded cell phone towers at large-scale events like SXSW, music festival and concerts. When everyone brings their smart phone out, no one’s apps work and no one can connect a call. But the reliable, low-tech SMS fills in the communications gap when voice and data fails.

And transformative power of SMS is even greater in countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Indonesia where the majority of the world’s economic growth is happening. When personal income rises, a cellular phone is almost always the first major purchase.

In Nigeria there are more than 100 million activated devices in a population nearing 170 million. Mobile broadband is under development, but will still be prohibitively expensive for a broad segment if the population.


Mobile Phones VS Smarthphones Mary Meeker What Innovation Isnt

At a recent presentation Nigeria’s Minister of Communications Technology, Omobola Johnson spoke of the mobile phones as the infrastructure provider to deliver vital health services information, personal identification, payments and communications on a single device. For the foreseeable future SMS will be the platform connecting Nigerian consumers to the services they desire. So even as smartphones are on the rise globally, they’re still a trifle to most of the world’s population.

Telling the story of innovation

So we’ve come full circle. We’ve explored why you may not be a disruptor, even when you think you are, as well as where to find disruptive innovation. Finally, how does one talk about disruption in progress? Show, don’t tell.

Sadly, most people are scared of innovation. Customers prefer predictability to innovation. If you’re truly disruptive the worst thing you can do is say it. Your best bet is to focus your public relations efforts demonstrating how you help real people alleviate their pain, and what’s wrong with current solutions. Your innovation story is not about features, it’s about customer benefit, whether it’s ease of use, cost or customer service.

Being first to market with a flashy new technology is great, and may excite your team, and some investors, but customers pay your bills. A true innovator is someone who solves a persistent problem in a new way. Using new technology to deliver benefit is purely optional.


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4 Responses to “What Innovation Isn’t”

  1. Jeffrey Romano October 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    You make a very good point that when innovating it is important to keep the focus on the customer, and not on the technology.

  2. Chris Ogunlowo October 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    Thanks for putting this in a clear way. Innovation has to be relevant and well-timed.


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