Barely a week goes by where companies are not implored to unleash the innovative potential of their employees. Companies such as Apple are held up as exemplars of what can be achieved by being innovative and creative.
I’d like to suggest however that innovation is in fact over-rated, and that copying your rivals is a better source of business advantage. To give a cultural perspective to the blog I refer you to this fine dissection of some of the most innovative musicians of the past century and how most of their finest works have been ripped off from others.
You can read that a little later though. First, lets get to the rationale behind this claim that sitting on the cutting edge will do little but give you paper cuts.
I’m sure we’ve all heard of Rogers Adoption Curve. It reveals the process products often go through on their way to mass market adoption. Thinkers such as Geoffrey Moore and Malcolm Gladwell have built upon this basic theory in recent years as companies strive to out innovate their peers.
If you think about Apple however, their record with innovation is not so hot. They didn’t invent the personal computer, they merely built on the IBM models already out there and made them prettier and easier to use. Likewise the iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player on the market, or indeed the iPad the first tablet computer.
Such examples are commonplace the world over. Facebook was far from the pioneer in social networking, yet it has come to rule the roost. Likewise Google was far from the first search engine to achieve strong market share.
The Western culture of advancement perhaps explains the current mindset. The patent system suggests that innovative behaviour deserves exclusive reward. Reality however suggests that all involved benefit much more if innovative ideas are opened up and built upon.
Research from the University of Buffalo recently revealed that when an innovation is opened up to improvement from others, everyone wins because this additional innovation ensures the overall market is much bigger. So even if the original innovator has a smaller slice of the pie, because the pie itself is bigger they still win.
Not only does open innovation allow the original product to be improved, it also allows companies to build complementary products.
“In the scenarios I study, further innovation happens (through free-licensing) because a firm needs more research-and-development efforts to be taken by other innovators to stimulate the development of complementary technologies, or in order to encourage consumers stepping into a new market ” Gilad Sorek, author of the study explains.
The risk if innovation is over-emphasised is that organisations look to own that which they personally create, whilst at the same time poo-pooing anything that was not.
An innovation is much more likely to cross the chasm if multiple organisations are working on developing that market. So don’t be concerned if you’re not inventing the wheel as history suggests that the true riches come instead from making the wheel as attractive as possible. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.