Innovation & Insights

The Real Power of Innovation

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Innovation isn’t what innovators do; it’s what customers, clients, and people adopt.
  • Innovation isn’t about crafting brilliant ideas that change minds; it’s about the distribution of usable artifacts that change behavior.
  • The real power of innovation is in what it allows people to do and become.

I came across a 2004 article (need login to read full) by Michael Schrage in Technology Review and it’s a nice reconfirmation of the real power of innovation.

“Simply put: innovation isn’t what innovators do; it’s what customers, clients, and people adopt. Innovation isn’t about crafting brilliant ideas that change minds; it’s about the distribution of usable artifacts that change behavior. Innovators – their optimistic arrogance notwithstanding—don’t change the world; the users of their innovations do.”

Schrage continues, “The Big Lie of the Information Age is that ‘Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’ What nonsense. In reality, nothing in this world is more powerful than an innovation that has diffused to the point where it enjoys both global reach and global impact. Ready access to ideas promotes awareness, but ready access to innovation promotes empowerment and opportunity [my italics].”

In other words, the real power of innovation is in what it allows people to do and become. So often we are inundated with articles about great ideas and the leaders who help them bring them to market when in the long run it is the customers, the you and I touched and influenced by what those technologies bring in terms of benefits to our lives, that will ultimately move society as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of reading about those new ideas and those leaders, but the ideas themselves have no value unless they become what Schrage calls “diffused” within society. Schrage wisely points out that this is not a subtle distinction.

Twitter is a great example. Bankrolled to the tune of about $800 million and generating 200 million tweets per day, it is an idea that has become diffused within not only our society, but in societies around the world. If we look at their role in Egypt’s open push towards democracy, for example, we can begin to see how diffused innovations can promote “empowerment and opportunity” and through that role change histories.

On the business side, this brings up an interesting comparison as well: Apple vs. Sony. Apple, once a backroom tool for designers and educators, is now the second most valuable company beyond Exxon (was first for a while there). There is no doubt that there is a tremendous amount innovation on the development side for all Apple products, but it is how those products have impacted users’ lives that has made the company so valuable. In a sense, they are valuable because so many people derive value, and therefore are able to deliver value, because of their products.

Contrast this to Sony (a good Bloomberg Businessweek articlehere). Overall, what do their innovations really do for us? There used to be a time when Sony meant new and innovative products and thinking (think Walkman or TV’s), but their inability to deliver an integrated and empowering experience for users means that their innovations, in the sense the Schrage talks about, aren’t actually that innovative. The fact that LG and Samsung both sell more TVs than Sony worldwide point towards increased a commodification of what used to be a core product category and it really comes as no surprise that over the past nine fiscal years, the business that’s made more profit than the rest of Sony put together is financial services. Sony in a sense is no longer a people company – it’s a numbers company.

The lesson for organizational leaders today is twofold. First, big ideas are no longer enough. There have to be actively developed mechanisms by which those ideas can be “diffused” throughout the organization, so that all levels of employees can be empowered to drive innovation through the entire product or service value chain. Only then, can an organization hope to create the same diffusion in the market. Second, big ideas must take into account greater degrees of human psychology. With companies like Apple showing the tangible benefits of delivering intangible emotional connections, consumers, and employees, are no longer willing to accept products and services that lack the potential for real human connection. No brand can survive unless it effectively translates its benefits into a vernacular that places the product or service within the context of human emotion.

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