Have we hit an innovation lull or are we just bad at keeping up with and telling the stories of recent innovations?
Over the past few years, I have participated in several innovation conferences and talks, including as a guest speaker for some of the conferences. I continue to be surprised by the examples used by so-called innovation practitioners and experts. The examples include Kodak being out innovated by Fuji, Blockbuster being out innovated by Netflix, Airbnb, Amazon, Uber and so on. These are all great innovation stories but have no great innovations happened more recently? Are great innovations not happening right now? Why do we hang on to the innovations that are in some cases decades old now? Is it because everyone knows the Kodak, Blockbuster, and Netflix stories so it is familiar ground to the speaker and the audience? I think that is probably part of it, but I also think it stems from laziness and inexperience on behalf of the speaker, and quite frankly, it’s boring.
Every so-called innovation expert could be sharing examples of countless startups and new products/initiatives by established companies if they did a little bit of research. You know what people want to hear from innovation experts and practitioners? What is happening right now. Who is thinking about and creating the next Netflix, Google, Amazon, and Uber. We don’t need history lessons from innovation people and decade old examples, we need innovation people to talk about what is happening right now and what is likely to happen in the future. Is that risky and scary? Sure, but we’re talking about innovation. Innovation people that play it safe aren’t really experts at all. They can continue to get booked for speaking gigs and workshops because maybe they’ve dug into the likes of Kodak deeper than others and have adapted some workshops to analyze what Kodak should have done better and differently. Anyone referring to decade old innovation stories is not an innovation expert and should forfeit all credibility.
So how did we end up here? Why do we have so many innovation events and speakers waxing on about bygone days? I believe the responsibility lies with corporate innovation leaders and departments. Many corporate innovation leaders and departments are so risk adverse, insular, and move so slowly that the Kodak story still sounds interesting and exciting to them. Plus, since it is such a familiar and clear-cut story there’s no risk to soaking it in one more time. It almost becomes an elixir of, “Well, at least we’re not screwing things up as badly as Kodak did.” The innovation experts and consultants know who their audience is and who they are trying to appeal to, so they keep going back to the same well, and the Kodak well, apparently, hasn’t dried up yet.
You likely won’t see these innovation experts engaging with entrepreneurs and startups because those groups are already innovating to some degree of success. Instead, they are speaking to those with the desire to become innovative, often big corporations or innovation labs. For startups, it’s not manufactured innovation like what is happening at most corporates and that most innovation experts pontificate about — it’s real innovation. Real experiments are being conducted. Real risks are being taken. The real innovation conferences, speakers, and sessions are at entrepreneurial and startup conferences and events, not the corporate innovation ones.
Entrepreneurs don’t care about and don’t want to hear about Kodak anymore. They are too busy iterating on their innovations and experiments. Intentional entrepreneurs and startup teams can run circles around corporate innovation people on how to conduct experiments and how to do validation around new problems, ideas, and potential solutions. Too many corporate innovation people live in the land of what is known and comfortable, and that is why hearing about Kodak for the 10,000th time doesn’t bother them. Their paycheck is still going to get deposited. Entrepreneurs don’t have the time or inclination to play innovator, they are living it and doing it with their personal and professional lives on the line.
Many corporates are doing innovation now by starting their own venture fund and empowering a team of venture people to seek out startups to invest in and/or to acquire. This innovation through outsourcing to startups approach is probably the best path for corporates who haven’t been able to get much traction and accomplish very much through direct innovation. At a minimum it helps them get closer to real innovation. At a maximum, the venture teams and the innovation teams at corporate can figure out how to use this exposure to startups to learn and become better at direct, internal innovation. The venture arms of corporations have had mixed results so far with some corporations pulling it off well and others struggling for it to make any difference whatsoever. Not surprisingly, the corporations who are the best at organic innovation are also the ones who prove to have the most successful venture arms.
Corporations are also partnering with service firms and startup accelerators to get access to startups working on innovation that corresponds to their business or industry. L-MARKS, Singularity, and countless other accelerators are attempting to bridge the gap between corporations and startups to nurture innovation and to provide access to funding and/or customers for startups. The jury is still out on how well this works and whether it is a sustainable, long-term innovation strategy for corporations. My guess is that it’s another great tool for corporations to use around innovation, but by itself it won’t make them innovative.
Innovation experts will also write about and tout things like Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, 3D Printing, Blockchain, Robotics, Virtual Reality, and alike as the hotbeds for future innovation. It is like saying that air and water are going to be important to people in the future. Of course they are — but the how, why, and who is doing something of substance with them is what we should be focusing on. It is easy to say that these new technologies are going to shape our future but it takes more work and time to find people and companies that are actually doing impactful things with them.
Venture capitalists catch a lot of flak for being out of touch, arrogant, egotistical, and narcissistic but they just might be the foremost experts on innovation as investors often see new technologies being experimented with in potentially high-value ways before anyone else beyond the company founders. The most successful investors often don’t even know what the potential of a particular product or company truly is when they first learn about it, but they are aware enough to know there is potential to place a bet on the team being able to realize the potential. I believe we need more investors, along with new product creators and entrepreneurs speaking about innovation, not the corporate innovation experts, as the true innovation is being in large part driven by them.
Innovation experts are skilled at over complicating innovation and creating mind-numbing charts, diagrams, and other visuals to define innovation. They will speak of horizons, stages, and quadrants. Innovation experts have to over complicate and then find ways to package up the over complication to create a need for their existence. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Innovation can simply be described as: 1) Identifying a new problem for which a new solution needs to be created or 2) Creating a new solution to an existing problem that is better than anything that currently exists. That’s it. We don’t need complicated labels and charts to define and describe innovation.
A key aspect of being great at innovation that most innovation experts don’t talk about is being great at product. No one or company can be great at innovation without being great at product. Innovation initiatives that are not backed by sound product creation processes and teams are merely exercises in ideation. I would argue that the product part is more important, and most innovation experts never talk about the product aspect. Being great at innovation and product are inseparable. A company’s ability to progress quickly from something being innovative to executing a disciplined product creation process that is based in experiments that happen iteratively and intimately with users is what makes innovation possible. Product action is always more valuable than innovation talk and ideation.
Innovation experts and practitioners would serve themselves, their clients, and their audiences (in-person or virtual) better if they spent more time digging into and learning more about what entrepreneurs, startups, and new products are doing to innovate in every business sector and every aspect of life. Yes, they will have to redo their decks, come up with new workshops no one wants to do anyway, and trash the decade old stories, but it just might make more sense and actually drive innovation. No one needs to hear about the Kodak story again.