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Innovation

Could it be the ‘New Black’?


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Innovation may be overused and overhyped, but it’s an important concept for all kinds of companies.

Innovation is the business buzzword du jour. Pick up any business magazine and you'll find the word on the cover with technology firms like Google and Apple often featured as role models. Look at company reports, advertising and press releases and it seems that just about every organization and executive claim to be innovative.  Even presidential candidates promise innovative approaches to bring change. Plug the word into Google and you get more than 100 million hits—people who analyze it, teach it, complain about it, or want to sell you it.

There may be lots of hype, but innovation is important and with the term being thrown around so much it's easy to lose track of what it actually is.

An innovation is any idea or process that is perceived as new to the organization or people that successfully adopt it.  It need not be either technology-based or new to the world. The electrification of America at the turn of the last century is a an example of a technology-based innovation and fast-food restaurants are representative of a service innovation. 

 

Roman Lubynsky is a technology consultant based in Boston. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he has an MS in Management of Technology from
MIT.
Roman can be reached at roman@lubynsky.com

Innovation is considered to be the primary source of competitive advantage. This can be either externally directed at customers in your products and services, or internally through process improvements. If the innovation is effective and valued, it produces an advantage—at least until your competitors match it. This means you need to continuously innovate to stay ahead and maintain that lead.  This is hard to do and few organizations are able to sustain it, explaining why many companies that topped the rankings in the past have slid to the bottom.

One reason is that an idea or an invention are in themselves necessary yet insufficient elements to achieve innovation. It requires the chain of activities that carry the notion through to successful everyday use. It takes multiple iterations to try it out and refine it until it finally does what was intended, plus creativity to recognize and adjust to meet emerging needs.  Even then, it needs to be reduced to a form that can be broadly employed, maintained and supported in regular and normal use.

While the timeline from initial conceptualization to adoption for innovations may be short, the same progression for major technological innovations can be measured in decades.

In recent years we've experienced dramatic technological advances such as personal computing, wireless communications and the Internet that have impacted virtually every facet of our organizations as well as our personal lives.  Each of these innovations required more than 20 years to evolve and reach widespread use.  An illustration is the simple computer mouse, which took 30 years to go from first demonstration to a common fixture on office desks.

In just about every case, fundamental technical advances start with government supported university-based research and later transition to industry where product development work begins to take shape. The actual products often embody multiple separate innovations that mature and converge into a solution at a time that intersects with an emerging market need.

An example is the Apple iPod.  Apple didn't invent portable music players, miniature drives, digital music files, or online delivery of content. But it did bring them all together into a system that, provided a unique and compelling value to consumers by uncovering a need that many didn't even know they had.

The point is that most any new technological solution that you might introduce into your organization in the next five or 10 years already exists. Innovations that produce an advantage in the near term will likely come by re-framing your problems and opportunities and then exploring how to leverage mature (or nearly so) technologies combined and applied in novel ways.

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