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.
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
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
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.
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.