Jack Donaghy vs. Kabletown: The Case for Innovation

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Television can contain nuggets of wisdom in even its silliest situations. Last week, a segment of 30 Rock struck a chord with me, like it has with FastCompany.com writers many times before. Though the context was satirical, this episode portrayed two stereotypes I recognize in the business world: innovators and complacent companies.

Jack Donaghy, a self-proclaimed innovator, delivered a eulogy for his mentor, Don Geiss, in the face of a personal crisis. His NBC had just been acquired by Kabletown, a complacent company coasting off the revenue of a mature product (and perhaps a jab at Comcast buying the real-life NBC?). With ninety-one percent of its profit coming from a single category--pornography--Kabletown saw no need for growth or innovation, making Jack's business skills obsolete.

Commemorating his fallen hero, Jack recalls Geiss' guiding philosophy: "There's always an untapped market. No business is ever done evolving. There are always opportunities for innovation."

His own words spark the realization that Kabletown has failed to address the needs of fully half of its potential market: women. Jack's new idea had the potential to double Kabletown's pay-per-view, as illustrated by another funny clip later in the show.

In my interactions with potential clients, I occasionally encounter a Kabletown—a company content with the status quo, throwing out excuses why innovation is not for them, whether due to regulation, product lifecycle or time constraints. And for every excuse, I have a reply. Channeling Jack Donaghy, I emphasize my belief that, no matter what a company's circumstances, there is always room to innovate.

Kabletown

Here are the top "Kabletown Excuses" I hear in my conversations with business people, and my reaction to them as a designer.

All innovation at our company has to be incremental due to product regulation.

Strategic innovation provides a roadmap, setting goals for short term and long-term improvements in a product line. Even if you're not traveling quickly to your destination, you need to know what the ultimate goal is. Plus, constraints breed creativity.

No one else in my industry is innovating.

Companies in this situation stand to gain the most by adopting innovation. Addressing product design and user experience where competitors have ignored it can change the rules of the game.

Our short product lifecycle does not justify innovation.

Products with a short lifecycle demand innovation to give customers something to come back for next time. Rather than squeezing out innovation, a quick timeframe actually enables it at a higher level, allowing you to quickly test new ideas with less long-term risk.

Our product is not sold to consumers: It does not need to be differentiated.

Whether your product sits in the back of a factory or the middle of an emergency room, it has an end user who responds to something newer and better. Your flagship products represent your company at trade shows and sales meetings and rally employees to make them feel good about working for your company. Give them something to be proud of.

Innovation is not just a word bandied about boardroom tables and primetime sitcoms. It is a new way of looking at a company, a product or a customer. Done well, it does have the power to drive profit, even for Kabletown.

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For 25 years, Stuart Karten Design (SKD) has designed products that serve as brand ambassadors for its clients and lead to greater market share and increased profit. SKD's team of 25 designers, researchers, and mechanical engineers guide a product from conceptualization through production. SKD is renowned for its medical products and its ear-centric devices, including communication headsets for Jabra and Plantronics, the Zōn hearing aid for Starkey Laboratories, and noise-cancelling ear buds for Ultimate Ears. SKD's awards include IDEA, Red Dot, iF, Good Design and the I.D. Annual Design Review. Conceptual "Epidermits Interactive Pet" was a part of MOMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition. In 2008, Fast Company named SKD among America's top five "Design Factories" in its annual Masters of Design issue.

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