News & Views

Opinion / Innovation is Liberation

by Contagious Contributor
Brian Cooper, chief creative officer, Oliver Group UK, argues that innovation isn’t about new inventions, but about spotting and backing winners

Invention is just coming up with ideas.

If Steve Jobs taught us anything, it’s that innovation and invention are two very different things. One of Jobs’ founding principles at Apple was ‘to remove the barrier of having to learn to use a computer’. He was aware of something crucial. You don’t have to invent something to innovate, you simply have to set the idea free.

Innovation introduces new inventions into the marketplace and disrupts convention. It is much more than simply conjuring clever, new ideas. Successful innovation depends on economics, human behaviour and corporate culture.

The failure of the Concorde and the rise of Jumbo Jet is a case in point. On 26 November 2003 Concorde made its final voyage marking the end of commercial supersonic flight. In its place the Jumbo Jet, weighing in at a massive 350 tonnes, succeeded where Concorde could not.

Concorde’s downfall was its lack of economic viability, which meant it couldn’t scale. For the average person, speed simply didn’t outweigh cost. We’d rather pay less and arrive later.

Fast forward and smartphones are the Jumbos of the digital age. They’re not the fastest and slickest but they are the most effective at cost per unit, and, importantly, they can scale. By 2020 there will be four billion people with access to the internet, and each with a smartphone.

According to Benedict Evans, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, we are moving from a PC supply chain to a mobile supply chain. It’s cheaper to replace a smartphone every two years, as Moore’s law doubles processing power, and because mobile components typically cost $40-200 versus $500-1000 for a PC.

The success of the Jumbo relied on our fundamental desire to travel. The smartphone relies on our fundamental need to stay connected.

Google Glass failed to lift off too. It’s a nice piece of kit, but it didn’t fulfil any basic human need. Apple hasn’t had this problem. Of course that’s because it’s never actually invented anything. From the graphic interface and mouse, invented by Hewlett Packard, to the smartphone, invented by IBM, Apple has made other people’s ideas work. Apple understands human behaviour. Time and again it works out what will make people actually use a piece of technology. With the corresponding demand, it can bring it to market at scale.

This foresight is not the case with companies who sub-contract innovation out to so-called “innovation labs”. They dream up ideas with little thought to real innovation. Conceived in isolation, and divorced from the everyday business, many of these ideas remain shackled to the labs that they came from.

Companies take this approach to innovation because they want to hedge their core product, particularly if they’ve already had some success. This conservative culture defends ground already won, instead of conquering new territory. It’s ‘playing not to lose’ rather than ‘playing to win’, in the hope that it won’t cannibalise sales of an already well-received product.

This is a mistake. ‘Playing to win’ recognises when new innovation is better than the existing offering and backs the winner – often at the cost of other products. When companies play it safe, new products suffer from lacking the right investment to scale, even if they might be potential winners. Take Kodak, which sealed its own fate. The original inventor of the digital camera, it failed to invest in the idea in favour of protecting sales of photographic film.

Invention is a wonderful thing. And the discovery of new ideas is absolutely necessary for innovation to happen. But this in itself isn’t innovation. If the process stops here it goes nowhere. For ideas to be commercially successful, you need to think about how they will fit in the marketplace. The success of which will always depend on economic viability, human psychology and a cautious corporate culture that is all pervasive. To pretend otherwise is to invent your own downfall.