Is innovation overrated?

Over on Harvard Business, I wrote a short piece claiming innovation is over-rated . It has caused a bit of a stir – 25 comments so far.

I take the position that innovation is a distracting word, and that great companies win because of the quality of their products, not how new the ideas in them are. What do you think?

5 Responses to “Is innovation overrated?”

  1. Jose Paez

    Some time ago I left a comment on a post of yours where you question the true value of PM certifications. I think this is pretty much the same case.

    I agree that innovation is overrated, I see companies adopting slogans and attitudes toward innovation but they don’t really know what the word means and how it actually works. It is just the fashion word of the decade if you will.

    Innovation (as leadership) comes from long ago and the true leaders of the past (just as the true innovators) never thought of ‘i’ll be a leader because that is so chick’, they saw a need to lead a group of people, lead a cause, etc.

    But last decade you would see people arguing that
    ‘leaders are born’; which pretty much makes no sense. Innovation is now the new leadership (in the 30s-is-the-new-20s sense) and people and companies try to ride that wave.

    Innovators exist, whether they call themselves innovators or not, innovation per se cannot be overrated, the sense we as a society apply to it is what makes it blurry; and so anyone that shows up as an innovator will have a shade cast over his persona until you can actually discern is this person true to the nature of innovation or is he wearing 70’s jeans because that is IN?

    Innovation per definition does not change, and I don’t think because fashion disrupts with its beauty the true meaning of a word that it should be discarded and not used anymore. To be an innovator is to be open to change, to question the status quo, to look for answers where no one has searched before.

    To that last sentence, I add the following quote that (in my opinion) describes what I like to think about innovation and anyone who truly feels an innovator:

    Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity. ~Christopher Morley

    PD. I think is not innovation but successful innovation the one that is overrated.

  2. Dan Roberts

    Scott –

    You hit the nail on the head when you said that innovation is “a vague, subjective term.” The comments in support of your argument, and those that disagree with you, all seem to be based on how the individual is defining the word “innovation.” Technically, innovation is really just a synonym for the word “new.” What is happening to the word “innovation” is what happened to the word “new” in the past; marketers have whored it out to the point where it doesn’t represent anything meaningful to the consumer. Essentially they ignore claims of “innovation.” So, I think you are right in one sense. The term “innovation” will reach the same status as the word “new.” Firms will continue to use and abuse the word innovation until the point where everyone ignores it. On the other hand, I think deep down most of us feel that innovation means more than that. Even though you can’t put a solid definition to the word, I think it means more than “new” to most people. Although the impact of the word will go away as a fad, the people who are constantly redefining industries and product lines through innovation, whether they call it that or not, will continue to win in the business world. In that sense, innovation is not overrated, it is imperative. However, I concede that I have no idea how to better define innovation. It’s one of those things that you have a gut feeling about, but innovation has so many meanings across so many industries that it defies a more standardized definition.

    Finally, I wanted to address your suggestion that instead of focusing on the word innovation, companies should focus on making great products. Again I think you are right in one sense but I also believe that there are two caveats to that suggestion. You are right in the sense that making great products is what companies should focus on. Great products surprise consumers and reward them with things that enhance their everyday life, as you pointed out. Taking the time and effort to make great products is crucial to a firm’s success. The caveat to this is something that comes up often in Clayton Christensen’s books. Making great products sometimes results in overshooting the needs of the target consumer and the product flops. The product may be great, but consumers don’t need it. So making great products is not always the answer. Secondly, most of the first iterations of an innovative product flat out suck. The company didn’t make something great, they just made something that sucked less than the alternatives. Sometimes great companies release products that are pretty crappy at solving a problem. By most accounts the first Palm Pilot sucked horribly, but it was still viewed as a valuable innovation.

    Anyways, just my rambling two cents…

    -Dan Roberts

  3. Priyanka

    I agree with Dan when he says “…the people who are constantly redefining industries and product lines through innovation, whether they call it that or not, will continue to win in the business world. In that sense, innovation is not overrated, it is imperative…”
    Also people have become a lot more understanding about what makes better business many concepts like employee free time, brain storming and other very good business policies have come up because at some point they are trying to make innovation happen.
    And all these policies may not actually make it happen but definitely it fosters the process and definitely it makes an attempt towards the real thing.

    Also about companies need to make good products to do well, thats not the only aspect. What if the customer service sucked while the product is good. Like I had a cable connection and I got a really good scheme but the customer service sucked, so I switched to a rival company even though getting a more expensive scheme.
    So my point being that many aspects of an organization need to be looked at to really make it a winner. And probably long discussions on ‘innovation or customer centricity’ would aid in bringing these insights.


  4. ashleigh

    You say: “… that great companies win because of the quality of their products, not how new the ideas in them are…”

    Agree and disagree.

    Great quality by itself does not make success. Just look at all the cheap low grade (low quality) crap flooding the west and coming from China. VERY SUCCESSFUL – for the Chinese supplier. Not high quality.

    There are anomalies – Look at Apple, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone.

    There is a lesson here:

    For success you need to be either very very cheap, or alternatively if you are not cheap you must have all of these;

    – a quality product. Not ultimate quality. Good enough quality. Different, and hard to spot the difference.

    – solve some problem. If you don’t solve a problem, you don’t give anybody a reason to buy. Be that a cheap video capture card or a monitored security system.

    – a means of selling (commonly called a Channel). You need to have a means of getting the product in front of customers.

    The world is full of examples of high quality products, or innovative and orginal products loaded with great ideas – which failed.

    You need the right thing, at the right price, at the right quality, with the right sales people, sold through the right channel.

    There is a continuum – at a lower price customers tolerate lower quality, worse sales people, crappy channels. Heck some will even order over the internet!

  5. Olivier Lehé

    Dear Scott, your post was good because 5 years after, it continues to be commented. I have written myself a post about this subject. I think 5 years after, the view of innovations is different than 5 years before. Word “Innovation” is more understandable. Hope my view will give a coin to this important subject: “is innovation overrated”. Olivier.


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