A Pragmatist’s Guide to Innovation, Part 1

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December 20, 2016

The Big Picture

Innovation is good, right? That’s the one unassailable truth of business, of course. Puppies are cute. Cake is delicious. Innovation is good.

So if innovation is so good, why are there so few really good practical examples of innovation? An innovation that’s been getting a lot of attention lately is Amazon’s first Amazon Go store in Seattle, where customers can take what they want and walk out of the store, and the Amazon app will automatically charge them. No scanning, no checkout, no hassle.  It’s a pretty interesting innovation, but it also has years of research of piles of cash behind it. That might give you the idea that innovation takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Sometimes it does, but it doesn’t need to.

So let’s get practical about what innovation is and how it happens—and how those of us with short time frames and thinner heaps of cash can still innovate.

There are lots of innovation models, but A Pragmatist’s Guide to Innovation (©2016 by me) uses the following four criteria:

Addresses an Identified Need

Okay, this one is tricky. Somebody will shout “Innovations meet needs that people didn’t even know they had!” While I suppose that may be true in some cases, in most cases an innovation meets a known need, perhaps in a way that wasn’t previously considered. So a useful innovation:

  • Allows me to do something I already do more effectively or efficiently
  • Allows me to do something I can’t or don’t currently do
  • Creates a better user experience and/or higher engagement

Some of the most useful innovations of the last decade have simply made information easier to access. They didn’t create anything “new,” per se; they just made what already existed easier to use.

Fit to Use

Evolution talks about “survival of the fittest,” which many people take to mean “survival of the strongest.” But of course, that’s not true—if it was, elephants would rule over us puny humans. It’s about best fit to the environment, or in the case of innovations, best fit for the need. That’s why we can be buying 80-inch TVs at the same time people are watching more movies on the 5-inch screens on their phones. Different needs, different form factors.

So a good innovation uses an appropriate approach and modality for what I need to accomplish or experience.

  • Fits my workflow or lifestyle
  • Is not cumbersome or difficult
  • Cost is consistent with value
  • Level of commitment is consistent with value

Value Over Current Solution

An innovation needs to provide me with value that is significantly beyond the way I currently do things, or allows me to do something useful that I can’t do now. The key word here is “value.” An innovation that is a big leap forward in technology may be exciting to the developers, but the real question is whether the users get anything out of it. They’re the ones who get to tell you if it’s valuable. Sometimes, the tiniest feature change can create enormous value (and the most enormous, expensive changes can provide no value at all).

System Integration OR Disruption

Remember the myth of Sisyphus? He was punished by the gods by being forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again and have to start over, for all eternity. If Sisyphus were around today, he would have a title like Director of Innovation.

It’s really, really hard to get businesses to change their systems (for good reason, usually). So if you don’t want to keep rolling that boulder up the hill, look for innovation that can reasonably integrate with existing systems without having to tear them apart. That increases the likelihood your innovation can actually be implemented.

The exception is Disruptive Innovation. Disruptive Innovations change the way everybody looks at the system, and replaces the existing systems. Our friends at Amazon disrupted the system by changing the way we bought books a few years ago, to changing the way we buy pretty much everything today.

But system disruption is a tall order. If the innovation does not integrate with current systems, it needs to be sufficiently disruptive and valuable to convince users to create a new system.

So that’s the big picture; in Part 2 we’ll talk about how all of this applies to the Learning Space—and how some of the biggest “innovations” of the last few years aren’t really innovative at all.

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