The True Nature of Innovation (Perception vs. Reality)

by Kamal Hassan

The new reality TV series, “Stars of Science,” gives 16 young Arab inventors a chance to design and build their dreams. From a solar-powered generator for tents, to an oxygen-infused juice drink, contestants vie to impress the judges and the audience. The show has captured the attention of many viewers, some of whom are eager to demonstrate that the Arab world can produce innovations as clever and profitable as the rest of the globe.

“Stars of Science” is sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. While it’s an honorable undertaking that encourages individual creativity, the one problem with the show is that it promotes only the popular perception of innovation. That is, a singular genius tucked away in a laboratory, experimenting with ways to make his or her inspiration a reality.

Many people equate inspiration, and subsequent inventions, with innovation, but they are not necessarily the same. The electric light bulb, for example, is one of Thomas Edison’s best known inventions. But even Edison realized that the light bulb would be of no value unless electricity was available in every home. Thus, the innovation was not the light bulb itself, but the electrical grid later designed to make the light bulb a useful invention for people.

Another example is the wheel – an inspired invention, but one that only lived up to its potential after some innovative thinker attached more than one wheel to a slab and created a cart. Many inspirations lead to inventions. Like the wheel and the light bulb, some inventions catch on. Others, however, never make it past the prototype, and they never reach the level of innovation.

Contrary to the popular perception, innovation is actually the process of uncovering a problem for which there is no solution (or no good solution), and then developing a way to solve the problem. For example, the light bulb, when coupled with a citywide electrical grid, solved the problem of providing light after sunset without the mess and danger of candles. The wheel, when attached to a cart, solved the problem of transporting goods long distances over land. In these cases, the innovative solution was a tangible item, but innovation can also take the form of a process or approach that solves a problem.

For instance, consider the age-old innovation of curing meat to make it last longer, or using spices to make food more palatable. Restaurant service is another innovation, a solution for travelers and others who can’t eat at home. Take-out and delivery are innovative approaches to restaurant service that solve the problem of eating at home without having to cook.

In the business world, in addition to solving problems innovation must also provide value to customers. In other words, the innovation must solve a problem that customers care about, and provide a solution for which they are willing to pay. All too often, companies offer new product features or expanded services, that company engineers and marketers think are innovative, but which don’t really add value from the customer’s point of view. (Think of the software upgrades you may have been required to purchase with a new computer, or the ‘new and improved’ shoe polish that seems to work just as well as the old kind.) As Scott Berkun points out in “The Myths of Innovation”:

  • “Many bright would-be innovators… fail to spend enough time exploring and understanding problems before trying to solve them.”

Part of understanding the problem is viewing it from the customer’s perspective. In this regard, we need to avoid the typical questions such as:

  • “How can we improve this product/service?”
  • “What innovation can we implement?”

The question to ask is “What is the user (or customer or client) trying to accomplish?” Such a question often leads to gaps that have been overlooked, and provides a perfect opportunity for real innovation.

For instance, when a person shines his shoes, does he care more about having a good shining experience, or about having polished shoes? Focusing on the experience of shoe shining, as the shine manufacturer might do, may lead to various product improvements, such as a quick-drying or non-streaking formula. However, focusing on the end result (polished shoes) might lead to the formula for a spray that can be applied when the shoes are made to provide long-lasting shine. The first is merely an incremental improvement, but the second is an innovation that not only meets the customer’s end goal, but also broadens the market for the shoe shine company.

Solving problems and providing value to customers is the crux of innovation in business. But innovation should also lead to growth opportunities. Strategically, this means developing a balanced innovation portfolio that includes different types of innovations: products, services, processes, strategies and business models. A manufacturer, for example, shouldn’t focus all its innovation efforts on new products, nor should a government limit its innovations to new services.

An organization’s innovation portfolio should also be varied when it comes to the degree of innovation, from incremental to significant to breakthrough projects. Organizations that diversify their innovation portfolio along these lines almost always generate higher return on investment than companies that limit innovation to only one type or degree. In addition, companies that innovate simultaneously in multiple areas reap more rewards than those that innovate in a single area.

Today, innovation is a popular buzzword, but organizations that wish to grow through innovation will only succeed if they pursue real innovation – using a strategically-sound approach, which enables them to solve problems that provide real value to customers. It is an approach that can be learned and assimilated into any organizational structure, with the right guidance and tool set.

Kamal Hassan is President and CEO of Innovation 360 Institute, and is responsible for leading the company’s global operations and customer acquisition.

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