I happened across an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review (stop me before I “innovate” again) this morning. The author’s premise seemed to be that everyone is so anxious to declare themselves as innovators that they lay claim to nifty (or not so nifty) things (e.g., peanut butter pop-tarts as flagged by the Wall Street Journal blog) as the next great thing. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I also wonder a bit (again) about how to define innovation. Websters defines innovation as:
: a new idea, device, or method
: the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods”
So, while the cynic’s view of the nifty new pop-tarts is that its follow & a reach, a more formal interpretation could be used to side with Kellogg CEO claiming that peanut-butter pop-tarts are indeed something new (if admittedly derivative). For that matter, I’d bet that someone, somewhere woke up one morning and went “hey! I have a great idea. Lets put peanut butter in a pop-tart and won’t that be incredible.”
The timing of this (for me) is particularly interesting on a few fronts. I’ve recently gone full tilt into a combination of consulting and reviewing opportunities for a tech leadership position in new firms, and have just completed an online course in Organizational Design through Stanford/Coursera. Pulling all of these together, I’m arriving at some conclusions. While the people in the WSJ may scoff at what Kellogg’s has done (perhaps the true innovation is taking something mundane and making it seem like more than it really is), there very well may be something there.
The nature of innovations is particularly important when framed in the context of business. Most (probably all) business advances are derivative, with much of the “innovation” coming from some unique and valuable combination of ideas, technologies and business processes. Imagine what would have happened had Apple not been so clever with their marketing and go-to-market strategy of the iPhone. In reality, it doesn’t do a heck of a lot more than the smart phones that preceded it. What it did do was tie into other systems and perceptions in a way that no other vendor had been able to capture. Viola! Something derivative became disruptive. In a major way. I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of those sorts of things in the past & that class of innovation can lead to mind-boggling results.
So I’ve arrived at a few conclusions (which will no doubt change over time), including:
- To survive in the long run, businesses absolutely must adjust the product or service that they provide. Even if their offerings remain valuable, someone else is going to find a way to provide a better or cheaper (or both) alternative.
- Some companies have an end game in mind. They build something, sell a bunch of it, and find a way to make that interesting to another firm to become acquired.
- Some companies make their money, then wither and fade from view because they aren’t able to keep pace with the business environment in which they live.
- Some companies are fortunate enough to create a special balance of valuable offerings, new innovations, along with the ability to change and not become burdened with debt, whether it be in the form of financial obligations, or ongoing commitments to support declining product lines or offerings.
The history of innovation is littered with derivative products. The Beatles unabashedly borrowed from blues artists and bach, the iPhone took mobile computing beyond the blackberry, Windows borrowed (some may stay stole) heavily from the Mac, which took a lot of its inspiration from earlier work at Xerox PARC (check this out).
So, while this may be a bit of a contrarian view, perhaps peanut butter pop-tarts are kind of innovative? For me, I was always partial to the brown-sugar cinnamon variety. Now, I need to watch my weight…..