This article is based on the presentation given by Meredith Lowry at the inaugural DOVETAIL NWA event.
We tend to talk about innovation in groundbreaking terms. Almost as if we went from using corded rotary phones one day to the next morning with the ability to talk to anyone from anywhere on the planet at any time. Radical, earthshattering disruption. And this makes sense to a certain extent. Disruption is shocking. It gets headlines. It sticks in our heads and we reshape how we see the world around it. But upsetting the world isn’t the everyday life of a business.
Truthfully, I’m not a fan of the word innovation. I’ve been a patent attorney for almost 18 years. I’m teaching product innovation at the university next spring. And I’m still not a fan of the term. Innovation is alienating. It’s hard for half the world to see themselves as innovators when the “innovators” we showcase are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Steve Jobs.
We talk about innovators and change agents, but very few innovations or inventions are from radical change. According to Entrepreneur, 98% of innovations are from incremental changes to the every day services and products we use. Again, this makes sense. While we don’t have eye-catching stories reporting about the newest improvement to running shoes, I personally would be pissed if I heard that my beloved Hokas were going to be radically different next month. Incremental change is vital to our recognizable brands – I’m all for new cushioning technology in my shoes – but Hokas and all of the other brands would not have the same reliability if they embraced radical innovation and removed the cushioning altogether.
Innovation at its heart is improvement. And we can see ourselves in improving. We talk about improving all the time. It’s the beginning of the year – it’s the season of improvement. But we don’t talk about innovating. It’s time we looked at the heart of innovation – the I, if you will – and improvement. Incremental improvements may not be sexy, but they can pay off.
Despite the sexiness of radical innovation, it’s risky as all get out. New Coke anyone? It took 79 days before Coca-Cola returned to the original formula. But New Coke was actually better in some ways. Coke did taste tests. New Coke was preferred so much over the original flavor that one bottling company threatened to sue Coke if it didn’t put New Coke on the market. But the core Coke drinkers in the South had an issue. They saw themselves as old Coke drinkers and didn’t see themselves – the I, if you will – in the new product. In contrast now, we see Coke with the solid offering of original Coca-Cola but providing new offerings of cola with vanilla or lime or whatever that Marshmello thing is. Incremental improvements have the ability to move your products or services forward while still keeping your customers close.
Change is one of those inevitable things. And while we like new products, people aren’t always as keen to learn new ways of doing things. Let’s take AI for an example. It’s considered one of the top innovations for 2023 and yet we’ve been using AI in Siri and Alexa for more than a decade. When it first launched, however, it was widely criticized, in part because people weren’t used to talking to what was perceived as a robot and, in some studies, people said they were embarrassed to talk to Siri in public. We can talk loudly to one another in public but it has taken years for us to get used to talking to an AI. Now, with the incremental improvements to Siri and other AIs, we’re happily using the technology to create content, onboard new workers, and communicate with customers.
Radical innovation also tends to disrupt the market it’s targeting and requires customers to take a leap in the adoption of the new technology. Let’s take the metaverse as an example. Again, one of those top trends for 2023 and this is reportedly the year that “defines the direction of the metaverse.” But if you were to tell your parents that they’ll be visiting the metaverse with the digital avatar to meet friends, they’d likely laugh. There isn’t an existing market for the 60+ crowd that’s adopting this innovation. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, our parents are not going to adopt virtual technology to hang out with their friends. And yet, existing brands are actively pursuing innovation OF THEIR EXISTING PRODUCTS to the market of the under 20 crowd. But that crowd was already there and the branding of products for them is just an add-on for their current experience. My daughter spends half her life on Roblox with her friends, where Nike, like so many other brands, has already established its footprint – it’s called NIKELAND – where you can play games decked out in your Nike digital shoes. Which by the way, they just received a patent for those digital shoes. Nike, like other fashion brands, has incrementally added to its metaverse offerings over time, but also moved into this new market with representations of their existing products. The metaverse may on its own be innovative, but the method the brands use there is akin to advertising in a newspaper for the 60+ crowd.
Ultimately, we need half the world to think of innovation, and in turn invention, as improvements. We’ve seen progress in encouraging more women to file for patents, but the progress is slow. According to a recent statistic from the Cardozo/Google Patent Diversity Project, based on historical trends, it will take until 2092 before we have gender parity for inventors. There are bright spots – NWA had a 2,500% gain in women inventors in the time period I’ve been a patent attorney. And while this is likely a consequence of Wal-mart encouraging women’s involvement on their business improvements, it’s hard to say that events like this where we discuss our own potential for improvements aren’t part of the solution.