Every now and then a client comes to us looking for innovation—some competitor has come out with a product that’s stealing their market, or their old product is running out of steam and they need a new direction. They usually think that coming up with the innovative idea is the hard part. But as I see it, that’s the easy part. The hard part is actually acting on the innovation.
The problem is that any innovative idea is disruptive. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be innovative. That means it requires the business to do things it’s never done, sell in ways it’s never sold, build a type of product it’s never built, or otherwise act in ways that are uncomfortable, for which it has no experience, or which are outside its business model.
Take for example the iPhone—everybody’s favorite example of innovation just now. A friend recently grabbed me by the arm, as iPhone users are prone to do, to show me the latest cool app he’d downloaded. (It was the ocarina app, showing on a map of the earth where all the people currently playing the ocarina app are located.)
Now, I own a Verizon smart phone. And Verizon has their own branded online store—VCast and Get It Now. But has any Verizon user ever pulled me aside to show off the cool app they just downloaded? No. Do I have any cool apps downloaded? No.
In fact, I’ve tried to find cool apps for my phone a few times. I always give up after five or ten minutes of frustrated hunting around. I can find the apps—each of which is marketed to me with a few lines of unhelpful text, many more lines of legal disclaimers, and a request for $3.99 or more to buy something I don’t even know if I want.
How come Apple can make a market for downloadable apps and Verizon can’t? Yes, Verizon has usability problems, but why haven’t they made solving them a priority? Verizon is used to marketing to consumers, after all.
I think the problem is that to be successful in this market, Verizon has to redefine their business. They have to think of themselves not as a phone company, operating in a regulated market, but as a consumer-products company selling direct to consumers in an open, unregulated, online market. That would require a fundamental rethinking of their business model. And they haven’t yet decided they’re going to do it. And this really is a decision—they’re a large company full of smart people. There’s no question they could do this. But can they make the organizational commitment?
For Apple, it’s easier. They’ve been operating in the consumer-products market for a long time. They got their feet wet in the online-sales business first with computers and then with iTunes, so selling phone apps isn’t much of a stretch. For them, the stretch was thinking they could go into the phone business at all—but they were willing to make the organizational adaptations necessary to succeed.
Most companies find this very hard. To put aside all your organizational history and expertise, to go into a new market like a startup with all the commitment and focus and risk that implies, with no guarantee of success—it’s not really surprising that many organizations can’t bring themselves to do it when it comes to the point.
So if you’re thinking, “My company really needs to innovate. Why can’t we be creative like my competitor?” ask yourself if you’re ready to fundamentally reinvent your business. Ask yourself if you’re ready to experiment with untested business models, new marketing channels, new relationships with your customers. Because that’s what “innovation” will take.