Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Innovation Gone Wild

Innosight's President Scott Anthony made an interesting post on Harvard Business Online the other day about Innovation gone overboard - questioning to great extent whether replacing a car key with a wireless pushbutton constitutes "innovation." I couldn't agree more that it does not. But then Scott asks the question, "How do companies get to this point? How do slim and marginal improvements in product performance become dubbed innovation?" I have long said that innovation is an over used term. And managers eager for recognition apply the term liberally to any step forward. But what are the underpinnings of their thinking? Well here it is.

Have you ever watched a group of 11 and 12 year old boys try to earn their fishing merit badge in the Boy Scouts? They remain interested in the merit badge counselor's instruction for about two minutes, then the boys drift off into their own worlds. Called back to order, the counselor asks one of the scouts to "watch" him tie the knot again and the boy, unable to tie the knot, or innovate, looks away. "No" says the couselor, "watch." And the boy glances as the counselor specifically shows him how to tie the not. Again the boy looks away before the task is completed, and struggles ten minutes longer than all the other boys before completing the knot successfully.

If it is this difficult to learn how to tie a knot with the instructor present, showing you how to do it for free, imagine how difficult it must be for an adult to innovate without additional supervision. Like the young Boy Scout, it is hard to pay attention and simpler just to take the easy way out. Trial and error. Which is why the pace of innovation is so slow and why the term innovation gets tattooed on every product upgrade. Only a few years ago Procter & Gamble would label it's products "new & improved," an ultra this or concentrated that. New & Improved has simply been replaced by the word innovation - today's marketing buzzword.

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