Innovation: Do it or sit and watch?

Where are you personally — or your organization — investing and focusing energy around innovation?

There are numerous books (like this one, this one and this one) in the marketplace that tout formulas or methodologies for capturing the essence of how to drive innovation. My view is that — by the time a book or even a magazine is published — a lot of time has passed that often makes what’s written stale. I further believe that it’s imperative to consume every detail of the area you’re interested in innovating within and have the best knowledge of this space *and* the trends around it that are influencing it.

So studying the area upon which you want to innovate is key. Observing what others are doing is important. But diving in (along with others of complimentary skills) is the only way to build an intuitive feel for how and what needs to be created…and to truly be in a position to deliver disruptive or revolutionary creations.

One of my favorite quotes is this one by Marilyn vos Savant, “To acquire knowledge, one must study; but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.Taking innovative developments within context — over a period of time — is a great way to understand what happened in the past. But I submit that the rapid proliferation of information dissemination over the Web (and especially now with bloggers accelerating access by creating buzz and pointing to important and critical information on a huge variety of topics) is making it even tougher for you and I to understand the accelerating, influencing trends and how they are affecting the future.

This is one reason why I began blogging and dabbling in podcasting. I was an observer of blogging for well over a year and was (due to my background in enterprise-class web tools from my time at Vignette) somewhat dismissive that it wasn’t all that important though I was intrigued due to my use of blogs during the runup to the presidential election in 2004. I got in the game with blogging and podcasting since my intuition told me that these were going to rapidly and fundamentally shift the balance of communication power in to the hands of the masses and I had to experience and live it.

I’ve already received much benefit from my blogging experiences. Connections with new people. Many, many new conversations around esoteric topics sparked by blog posts I’ve done. A fundamental understanding of the growing power and influence of this new communication method (which is driving my passion for an initiative I’m involved in at work). Getting my bride, colleagues and friends in to blogging as they’re building or leveraging their respective brands.

Am I going to be a new media mogul in this area? Nah. But if I can’t experientially live both of these new enablers (and others like videoblogging) as the trendline is showing the proverbial hockey stick of growth like in podcasting, then I will be unable to intuitively grasp the subtleties and nuances of change within them and their impact on everything I do. Intuition is the key to innovation since data alone is insufficient and true greatness and invention requires intention, persistence, leaps of faith and cognition in order to create. As Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in conversations about Apple’s innovations and specifically how they’ve hit the sweet spot in digital music with the iPod…as though it happened magically and overnight. But there are MANY variables that all have come together within Apple — as well as macro forces driving consumers and the music industry toward change — that made this innovation of the iPod possible.

Here are but a few: as we all know, Apple’s core competency is in the “essence” of the technology experience and they’re legendary for ease of use. It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the unix-based Mac OS X operating system with a tremendous user interface; how Apple has made Quicktime arguably the best media container (and just wait until Quicktime 7 debuts shortly); and put together a wide array of professional and amateur digital tools for video and audio that now covers the majority of the value chain (e.g., in music) from professionals to end customers.

What’s my point and how can Apple’s example be applied to *your* energy investment in innovation? It’s not about making a better iPod…and Lord knows companies are trying. It’s not about making a better iTunes music store…though Napster and others are trying hard. It’s not just about understanding the pent-up demand of your customer’s who were disenchanted with CD buying and obviously *loving* instant access to digital music (even if it meant stealing it). It’s about understanding the *entire* value chain *and* the ecosystem from a holistic perspective and mastering the alignment of incentives of everyone in it!

One could argue that Steve Jobs understood the professional, production side much better due to his chairmanship of Pixar. I’ll buy that. But taking all the data points together and leveraging the Apple brand coolness factor, ability to make the iPod a brain-dead-simple device to use, and tying all of it together with a usable and affordable online music store, provided an “A-to-Z” value proposition that everyone has obviously loved.

The tough part in all of this? Unless you have a Steve Jobs driving the vision and coordinating and orchestrating the key parts of the value chain (i.e., the music studios, etc.) it’s tough to something on such a grand scale as Apple has done with the iPod phenomena.

But I submit that even smaller pieces of the value chain can be refreshed, renewed and set up for innovation. Any product or service can be reworked and refreshed. The company I work for is driving toward innovative changes right now. My bride and I are continually reworking and refreshing her ebooks and other publications. In fact, more than 75% of her revenues have come from products that didn’t exist 4-5 years ago.

Need to kick-start your brain?

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Connecting the Dots Podcast

Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.