In chapter 3 of The Myths of Innovation, I explore why innovation methodologies are prone to fail. It’s not their fault – there are many factors involved that are out of the control of any individual. You can do many things right and still fail.
There are dozens of challenges that must be overcome, but to be handy I distilled them down into 8 basics. This provides a handy checklist for evaluating why ideas die, why a start-up failed, or where the real tough spots are in making innovations happen.
- Find an idea. Historically this is easy. Ideas are everywhere and anyone who can consider a problem for an hour can come up with possible ideas for solving it. Creativity is rarely the hardest challenge.
- Develop a solution. The gap between an idea and a working prototype is HUGE. So what if you think something can be done, go and do it. Until you can show the manifestation of the idea, it’s still just an idea. Thousands of brilliant minds have conceived brilliant ideas, but failed, despite years of dedicated effort, to successfully prototype them.
- Find a sponsor and funding. Even with a kick-ass prototype in hand you need resources to develop the prototype into a product. Whether an entrepreneur or a middle-manager, odds are good that to finish a prototype, or make a product out of it, you’ll need someone else’s approval. (Even if it’s your wife’s permission to spend nights working, a friend who will let you live in their basement, or a bartender willing to run you a tab).
- Reproduction. Making one of something is not the same as making a thousand. I happen to have an amazing mousetrap: his name is Vincent and he’s my 15lb cat. But I can only sell one, as cloning him would cost $50,000 and that’s more than anyone would pay for a good mousetrap. Having an innovation and having an innovation than can be reproduced economically are not the same thing. Software is generally easy to reproduce, but many innovations are not. When it comes to the web, reproduction often means scale: can your server handle 50000 people using your innovation at the same time? This is a different technical skill set than creating the prototype.
- Reach a customer. This is where the skill set required to make a successful innovation changes dramatically. OK. So you’ve overcome the first four challenges – but now the challenge has nothing to do with domain expertise, prototype brilliance, or even funding. Now someone has to inform potential customers that your innovation exists, persuade them to be interested, and convince them to pay money for it. Wow. What does this have to do with breakthrough thinking or a brilliant prototype? Very little. Those things help, but the challenge is now about persuasion, not creation. Up until this challenge, most innovators are deliberately hiding from the world in fear of idea theft, but now they have run in the opposite direction.
- Beat competitors. Every idea has competitors. Even if you successfully reach customers, you won’t be the only one trying to reach them, and in the pursuit of customers things get ugly. Thomas Edison, in the war over electricity, tortured animals to convince the world his DC current was safer than Westinghouse’s AC (they were equally dangerous). How to position, advertise, make partnerships, sign deals and distribute a product is complex, unpredictable, and has little to do with the quality of the idea being sold.
- Timing. This is the challenge that crushes innovators souls. A huge number of things can happen on any of your important days that a) decides your fate and b) you have no control over. Imagine what happened to all the start-up companies that announced their new product to the world on Sept 11, 2001. No one knows their names, and many of those companies did not have the resources to stage another launch. WWII had a huge impact on innovation: many ideas that weren’t war related were mothballed for years, including broadcast television in the USA. Timing impacts product launches, business deals, cost of goods, and dozens of other decisions innovations depend on.
- Keep lights on. And of course, while you’re doing all of the above, someone has to pay the bills and keep whatever daily business there is running.
The book digs deeper into these challenges, and how succesful innovators overcame them, so if you dig this view take a look at the book, The Myths of Innovation.