Innovate or die? Calm the farm!

You’ve heard the expression. Everyone has heard the expression. It’s the mantra that you think big, successful companies live by. We have to change our business, or the way we do business, to stay ahead of our competitors and, more importantly, keep the demand up from increasingly-fickle consumers who are being bombarded with thousands of brand messages everyday.

Marketing mag reiterated the importance of this statement with a recent article by Mark Cameron, CEO of Working Three, advising us all to “spend the time to be truly innovative” and citing a recent project by Nike as a great example of where brands should be pushing the boundaries of new ideas to engage consumers.

But what does innovation really mean? And more importantly, what does it mean for those companies without massive R&D budgets? Perhaps we ought to stop being so overly dramatic about it – ‘innovate or die’ does lend itself to a line from a Shakespearean tragedy.

In fact, as we’ll discuss later, if you innovate too much, you will die. Let’s look at the Nike example first to see what key lessons we can take out of it for smaller businesses.

The first thing to remember is that innovation doesn’t have to be radical. Nike teaches us that. Cameron writes:

“For example, Nike has launched a new platform that enables customers to use their Instagram photos to customise a pair of sneakers. With Nike PHOTOiD you can choose an Instagram photo which then applies the colours from that image to a pair of Nike shoes.”

Take this stage by stage. The first question is the concept of a brand producing a customised product for a singular client. That, of course, has been around for a long, long time on a small and large scale, and for all sorts of products. Suits, shoes, jewellery, housing – anything you want customised, can be. Varying colours of a product is no big deal and matching those with an Instagram colour is a technology that anyone at Dulux or a graphic designer with a Pantone book would be able to do. Taking those colours and designs from a photo has also been done before. We’ve transferred photos from a JPEG to all sorts of places: coffee mugs, Christmas cards, T-shirts. Print-outs of Instagram photos are nothing new either.

Cute idea, yes. Ground-breaking, no. Should we really use the word innovation here? Maybe not. Improvement? Amalgamation of existing ideas? Nothing Nike has done here is radical at all.

Let’s take it to the other end of the spectrum and look at the mother of all recent innovations: the iPhone. Did Steve Jobs create something breathtakingly innovative when he put the first iPhone in our hands? Of course not. The iPhone was a relatively simple step from the iPod. The iPod was a step from any average MP3 player. The MP3 player a combination of a hard-drive and some headphones. Better designed and better engineered? Supremely engineered and designed, in fact. It could appear as a revolution but it was really more like an evolution.

So that’s where we have to be careful projecting our panicky statements like ‘innovate or die’ with examples of global brands spending millions of dollars. Maybe a better approach would be ‘improve or die’. Every business, irrespective of budget size, can do that.

Innovation can often be the downfall of a company; detracting people away from the simple fact that improvement isn’t going to make any more money, and what they really need to concentrate on is filling the top of the pipeline. At some point you need to stop tinkering, and start selling. A recent study from early in March looked at Formula One racing teams and found that, “teams introducing innovations that go further than new technical regulations require tend to perform worse on average than those who simply meet the requirements.” The lesson here is: innovate to a point, then race the car.

Great by Choice, by prolific business analyser Jim Collins, also gives a number of great examples where the less innovative companies have succeeded, and where the trailblazers have failed. The big difference he highlights isn’t the innovation itself, but the ability to take someone else’s innovation and scale it, introducing changes gradually, then moving quickly to capitalise on those that show promise. In fact, Collins goes further and demonstrates that as our surrounding business environment changes radically, it is those who change less that grow and succeed.

It’s important to remember that within the evolution of a product there will come a point when incremental improvements no longer matter to a certain group of customers. How many bells, whistles and apps can you have added to your smartphone before you simply want the thing to act as a smartphone?

Perhaps I’m being too hard on the term ‘innovation’. Innovation is, after all, just a new solution that meets new requirements or an existing need. But the sense that we’re sold innovation with is that it’s vital we produce radical shifts in our company strategy or we’re going to be left out in the cold. It isn’t quite that dramatic. And in fact, consistency is often more important than innovation.

Ancient proverbs can often present a clear path for our business. Maybe your success will come from being less of an alarmist hare, and more of a steady tortoise?

Simon Dell
BY Simon Dell ON 10 July 2013
Simon is a former full-service agency managing director that ran for seven years and delivered for clients across Australia. He now runs his own digital consultancy SimonDell.com working with Australian businesses helping with online communication and creative strategies. Find Simon on Twitter at @IAmSimonDell, on LinkedIn at IAmSimonDell and Facebook at SwitchYourBusiness.