Invention Is Not Innovation
Now, clearly there are some great people out there writing and speaking about actual creative processes — Luke Williams, Richard Martin and Hugh Dubberly to name a few. Yet, I still seem to come across clients who equate innovation with invention and who seem to expect that frenetically beating the bushes for novel ideas will help them achieve their business goals.
As a fan of 30 Rock, I wiped tears from my eyes during the episode where they lampoon GE's corporate culture and slavish dedication to Six Sigma. The reliance on acronyms and systematization of everything is comedy gold. So imagine my surprise when I read this about the behemoth corporation:
|"In the late 1990s, CEO Jack Welch and Chief Learning Officer Steve Kerr adopted the concept of making new combinations from existing elements as the basic problem-solving method for the whole company. They used a simple matrix that took the process of intelligent memory — what the brain does in flashes of insight — and turned it into a step-by-step team method…
Here’s how it works. At the top of the matrix, write down your current understanding of the situation (always as a provisional draft, because your understanding might change). Then comes analysis: List in rows what actions you think you might need to take to succeed in the situation (these too are in draft form, because they also might change). Then ask the most important question you can ever ask to solve any problem of any kind: Has anyone else in the world ever made progress on any piece of this puzzle? List sources to search for an answer to this question, across the top, as columns (in draft again). The team then starts a treasure hunt. They search the sources for elements that might apply to the list of actions, trying to find a good combination."
What's striking about this is the fantastic balance of method and exploration. The idea of systematically writing down the known knowns as the starting point for a "treasure hunt" strikes me as an approachable, useful construct. Before bushwhacking out into the wilderness for something new, designers can be disciplined about looking at what exists today and what can be leveraged.
For those who've read Edward deBono, this isn't rocket science. His work is full of methods to get people thinking laterally. And Luke Williams' new book, Disrupt, elaborates on these further. Here at Punchcut, these types of techniques are part of our creative process throughout projects.
The additional layer that we bring to our creative explorations is the craft of sketching and prototyping. As this previous article makes clear, designing for mobile, multi-modal devices means that physicality and space are of the utmost importance. Any successful design needs to be able to tangibly express the core value proposition in something people can feel.
Which brings we back to my original problem with innovation vs. invention. When we consider successful "innovations" that have achieved market success, they are very often not about "new" things, but rather the careful crafting of "new-ish" technologies into desirable, understandable packages.
Take the Prius. Energy conserving cars aren't new, and hybrid technology had been kicking around for a while, with a few failures as precedents. So, why did the Prius succeed? This decidedly ugly, small car in an era of ever expanding SUVs somehow triumphed. Rather than focus on the car having new "gee whiz technology" they created an icon with an aesthetic that owners can claim as a badge of honor. And now, having blazed the trail, others are free to just make "hybrid" versions of the same old models.
Product design history is littered with examples of how best-to-market beats first-to-market: the iPhone, OXO, and XBox for a start. As we continue to innovate and deliver products and services that consumers actually want, need and value, it behooves us to to remember that creativity needs more than "green field" directives.
At the heart of the word "innovation" are two key concepts. First, is the idea of renewal or change, which is what I think most clients who ask for innovation are really in need of. Rarely is a client in a position to create a wholly new product category that's never been done before. Secondly, innovation in economics has to do with adding value, whether for a business or a customer. And this, ultimately, is what we all should focus on. As Paul Rand said, "Don't try to be original; just try to be good." That's what people will love you for.
Thanks to Nate Cox for his contribution to this post.