Is It Possible To Innovate Without “Innovating”?

Three questions to help reshape your thinking about the real meaning of innovation.

Use the word "innovation" and most people call up imagery of an inventor slaving away in a garage, designing cutting-edge technology. But this is only part of the story. There are equally important opportunities to innovate, grow your business, and accelerate your career, that require no changes at all to the core technology of what you are, do, or offer. If you understand this, you can grow in new ways.

Everett Rogers, in his seminal book Diffusion of Innovations, shows that five factors determine if, how far, and how fast your innovation will be adopted by the world:

1. Relative advantage: How much better your innovation performs over the prior generation of solutions. The greater the advantage, the more readily people will adopt.
2. Simplicity: If the innovation is complex, users are less likely to adopt it.
3. Trialability: Can users easily test the innovation? If so, this accelerates adoption.
4. Observabilty: If others can easily observe your users using the innovation, this accelerates adoption. Think of Apple’s famous white headphones.
5. Compatibility: The level of compatibility adopting your innovation has with the daily life and habits of users.

This simple, powerful framework can help you design your innovation for maximum adoption. It explains why breakthrough technologies that deliver major leaps in relative advantage still fail. It explains why Apple has had such success packaging existing technologies into simple, observable, compatible packaging that rips open new categories and markets.

It also shows new opportunities open up when people’s daily life and habits shift, creating new compatibilities that we don’t need new technologies to seize.
Habits have transformed radically in the last five years:

  • My 2-year old son has trouble pronouncing his brother’s name--“Tuta” instead of “Lucas”--but can perfectly say “iPad.”
  • We trust the cloud. We no longer hold fast to the seeming comfort of plastic CDs and DVDs.
  • Fewer and fewer of us need to touch paper to feel we have read a book. At Monday’s American Music Awards, announcers read names and winners read thank-yous off smartphones.
  • Everyone--even our parents and entities like news programs--is comfortable using Twitter and Facebook.
Smart innovators are already launching a new generation of products that are “compatible” with these emerging norms.

I spent the day locked in a room with a team of software developers mapping out how to turn my Outthinker Process into a digital tool. The old model of offering frameworks in long-winded books began giving way about 10 years ago to digital forms and templates. People started using sites like My Strategic Plan and SmartDraw to convert questionnaires into dynamic visuals.

Now a new era of software--like SYPartners’ “Unstuck” iPad app and the Business Model Generation movement’s app--is creating vibrant tools that help us collaborate with others and that even interact with us intelligently.

The EMyth was founded in 1977 by Michael E. Gerber, best-selling author of the book of the same name. It evolved into a coaching network and huge library of processes to help entrepreneurs address issues that kept them from their potential.

I spoke to EMyth’s new CEO, Jonathan Raymond, who realized EMyth’s opportunity was shifting. Their content was timeless, but their PDF documents were becoming outdated. The company launched a massive effort to convert its 120 processes--addressing everything from defining your brand and managing your cash to connecting with your vision–-into intuitive, interactive virtual coaching modules for busy entrepreneurs. As Raymond explained, “[We thought] ‘How do we view this differently?’ How do we take the EMyth process (mostly PDF forms) out of its veil and put it out front? The old model was to protect the content. The new model is to share that.”

By adjusting EMyth’s solution to something more “compatible” with the life and habits of entrepreneurs today, the company has the potential to innovate without fundamentally innovating its core technology.
Here are the three questions to help reshape your thinking about innovation:

  • How is “compatible” shifting in your industry?
  • What opportunity is this creating for you?
  • How can you repackage your offering today to leapfrog into tomorrow?

[Image: Flickr user Rupert Ganzer]

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4 Comments

  • Jonathan Raymond

    Well said, Kaihan.  And many times, there's some work to do to rediscover what the "core technology" is in essence - or maybe reframing how it fits into the market in a surprising new way.   How do you hold to the integrity of your brand and open it up to the collaborative/connected world?   Interesting times ...

  • Slade Machamer

    Great article. Threaded between the lines here are some big questions, Is this innovation making life better for my customer? Does it address a need? It's an opportunity to teach people why they should want to go where you're going. When you innovate, you're telling the market you're alive.

  • Richard

    Good post. The framing is solid, 3 great questions at the end. We all
    have the capacity to innovate. The best innovative, strategic, creative
    thinking is available to us through managing our own thinking state and using
    thinking frameworks that keeps our thinking at that level and away from our
    default (albeit excellent) operational thinking level

  • Todd

    EMyth was taken over from Michael Gerber by his ex-wife after a messy divorce. It is now run by a cult organization called EBE or the Theohumanity Movement. Google it, and don't spend your money with them!