To begin with – I wonder if someone will argue with me if I just say “there are only so many original ideas in this world”. I am sure someone would – I can think of a few people I know on social media who hold a different view. In any case – I firmly believe original ideas are limited.
But is innovation a term to define an original idea? I am not sure – partly because I am not a scholar in English language. I cannot draw a firm difference between invention and innovation when it comes to an original idea. The idea of invention and innovation is to improve something in general.
If someone comes up with a cure for cancer – we will probably call it an invention. And when the next person comes up with an even better way to cure cancer – it gets called an innovation, or less charitably – an improvement. And the judgement passed on this is not done by the cancer patient who got cured or the doctor who treated the patient. It will be done by authors, analysts, scientific community etc – all of whom are a degree or two or more separated from what actually happened. Whether we call it invention, miracle, innovation, minor improvement or a waste of time and money all depends on the eye/tongue/keyboard of the beholder.
What is innovation then? It is a comparison to status-quo, isn’t it? If I do something better today than yesterday, I have done some innovation. But will anyone other than me agree that it is innovation? Should I wait to call it innovation till I find a few more people to agree with me? If making money is key – then yeah, I suppose a few people should agree with me. These should be buyers, people who influence buyers etc. This also explains why vendors shout out about innovation before any customers benefit from their wares. Good for them.
What is forgotten in this dialogue (err..monologue since I am the only one “talking” here now) is the time dimension of innovation – or more accurately, the shelf life of innovation. So I and a few others get to agree that what I just produced can be called innovation. And someone is willing to pay money to get it. As time progresses, I keep tweaking my product (to keep getting some money to earn a profit, to fund new projects, to go to Australia to watch a boxing day test match and so on) . Will each tweak be called innovative? Or because I did innovation once, will I continue to be known as an innovator?
From the money point – there are two ways I can make money. I can charge money for tweaks by charging a maintenance fee (the type SW companies do) or I can bring a new version every now and then and convince customers to (optionally) pass down old ones and buy new ones (like car companies, Apple etc do). As a customer, I prefer the former model where I get everything I need for a smaller price tag every year, as opposed to spending money (equal to or more than original investment) again to buy the next version. Companies who charge a maintenance revenue are tagged with “improvements” and companies that make you buy the new version all over again are tagged “innovators” or even “inventors”. Am I the only one who thinks this is strange?
For me as a vendor – if making money is my prime objective, the latter model is probably better. Of course I cannot do this one product – I will need a portfolio of products so that no one product can sink the ship if it fails to sell. I also need a brand that holds significant value and loyalty. Car companies and Apple have proven that this is a workable model. I have several friends who have bought iPads every time Apple had a new model. I also know many friends who for generations have bought Chevy, Ford or BMW. I don’t have any friend who buys cars from Chevy, Ford or BMW every time there is a new model though :)
This model is rarely seen in software side. The successful companies like IBM, SAP, MS all have made excellent software – used by millions of users for their daily jobs. Their solutions have long shelf life. And they charge a maintenance fee to provide improvements and support over time. They also come up with new solutions that fetch more upfront money than the annual maintenance. But since they don’t make people buy new models every few months – they almost never get any credit for innovation like Apple from the analyst/blogger community.
The criticism on”incremental-ism” is not without merit – customers are not always given sufficient “big enough” changes all the time. Vendors need to address that. However – it is not as if customers use what is available already all the time either. If I take SAP as an example – very few customers take time to find out what is available to them in Enhancement packages that they can use to improve their business process. And only a few go on all the way to implement it unless forced by laws and regulations etc. Vendors know this – so they strike a balance on how much they will improve existing products vs invest in new ones. Of course when they come up with new ones – there are people (like me) who will question its maturity. There is no easy answer here.
One last thing – adding “disruptive” to innovation. I believe this idea of “disruptive innovation” came from Clay Christensen. I do agree it is a neat idea. Where I differ from some other people is the frequency at which disruption can be done without losing efficiency of doing business. I cannot get my head around the notion of a business surviving technology disruptions every year in the name of innovation. But listening to some experts on the topic – and resisting the temptation to name names – I constantly get this feeling that they expect customers to be friendly to this idea of constant change. I know a CIO who had to fight more than a year to convince his company to let go of on-premises MS office and go to a cloud based office 360 solution. I doubt he can fight 5 such battles a year.
Just when I was all tired about the innovation – I spoke to an ex-colleague on phone. He says that the need to be innovative is so yesterday. His company is now moving on to be inventive. That is the new cool kid now it seems. At least can we go back and talk about “Synergy” or something again , or is retro not cool anymore either?