When asked to define innovation, one of my cynical friends answered with a snappy comeback. “That’s when a company changes the name of a color, tacks on some chrome trim, and calls their product ‘New and Improved'”. Unfortunately, her opinion is widely shared across the US. How many versions of mobile phones must be introduced before the market is totally saturated?
Strictly speaking, tweaking the color name and changing the trim do qualify as innovation if doing so improves the popularity of a particular widget in the minds of widget consumers. Such improvements often pay handsome profits, too.
This is why some people are eager to pay more money for an iPhone with a white case than an identical model housed in a black case.
Sometimes trim is a side issue with product lines. Long ago, consumers figured out that Mercury and Ford automobiles were essentially the same cars with different trim levels and exclusive name plates. During the economic downturn, someone came up with the idea to simply eliminate the Mercury Division and charge a little more for Ford cars. Mercury brand loyalists’ complaints were minimal, so the innovative idea to consolidate the brand names has been a success. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think that Ford could resuscitate the Mercury brand someday as another marketing “innovation”.
Are these product tweaks really honest innovations? Perhaps the implementation of a new idea creates more real value for the organization. We see this sort of innovation at work with existing systems, services, and processes from corporations and government agencies. Sometimes an innovation really is as simple as adding a new color for a mobile phone, or discontinuing product lines altogether.
You don’t need to be employed by a particular company or government agency to be innovative. If you search the Web for “hacks”, a world of innovations can be found. People are daily finding ways to use existing products differently. Whoever thought to use Coca Cola to clean toilets was being innovative. Whoever first thought to glue a small magnet to a spring-loaded clothespin to attach coupons and reminders to her refrigerator was innovative.
Many of us use the words innovation and invention interchangeably. We need to be careful not to do so. An invention is something foundationally new. Like when Nikola Tesla invented wireless remotely controlled model boats.
Innovation is when someone feels a need for a product or when an existing product is improved upon or redesigned for similar or different purposes. Someone adapted Tesla’s invention to enable us to remotely control our televisions. More sophisticated innovations of that device led to drone aircraft.
Of course innovation isn’t restricted to physical objects and widgets. Innovation is present in new ways of thinking. There have been many innovations in political thought, philosophy, and religion. Some of these have lingered, others have benefited from further innovative thinking.
The same way innovation affects widgets and stuff, so it affects ideas and institutions. When someone thinks through an existing concept or belief then adapts it to fit contemporary conditions and needs, we find innovative thought. Innovative thought may include the dressing up of an existing idea or the phasing out of an outmoded belief.
How have you benefited from or contributed to innovation?