Is It Possible for Companies to Over-Innovate?

Remember when this was the height of innovation?

Is it really possible to “over-innovate?” It seems baffling, on the face of it. What’s wrong with “too much” creativity and thinking ahead. The answer is that there’s a question of balance. Innovation drives a company, but no company can live on innovation alone. Innovation has to be done with perspective, or else you’ll find yourself building a brilliant product that nobody actually wants.

How To Over-Innovate

The masters of over-innovation are undeniably the Japanese. In Japan, they have an entire category of over-innovations called chindōgu, or “unusual tool,” products that seem to solve a problem, but create another, insurmountable problem. For example, hay fever sufferers can guarantee they have tissue on them at all times with what amounts to a hat with a roll of bath tissue on it. While the West may lack chindōgu, it’s easy to find its spirit if you know where to look.

A good example of this is the recent struggles of Keurig. Keurig rarely gets credit for solving a problem people didn’t know annoyed them; instead of brewing a giant pot of coffee that rapidly went stale, they could make a cup, as needed. Within a few years, they’d sold millions of machines.

That left Keurig with the problem of where to go next. So they went with the Keurig Kold, which, technologically speaking, is a fairly impressive machine. It applied Keurig’s coffee pod, single serving mentality to soda.

The problem is that Keuring created a machine any economist could tell them nobody wanted. Americans have been cutting down on soda consumption for over a decade, and in fact, it’s been an increasing decline. Furthermore, how we consume coffee, a morning ritual, and how we consume soda, the occasional sweet treat, was and is very different. The Kold was off the shelves in less than a year. So, how do you avoid the specter of the chindōgu?

Innovation needs to be thoughtful and balanced.

Innovating The Right Way

In the early stages of innovating, you and your team should always ask “What problem does this solve?” That’s good to remember in the first place, but don’t forget to ask your ultimate audience about this problem. Is it their biggest concern? Do they have others you hear about more often?

Secondly, always consider the future. Motorola’s RAZR and RIM’s BlackBerry were cutting-edge until 2007 when the iPhone arrived and made both of them utterly irrelevant in the time it took to explain what an “iPhone” even was. Look at what’s being talked about in your industry and be ready for disruptive shifts. At the same time, though, don’t let uncertainty paralyze you; after all, Motorola and RIM had no reason to suspect Apple, a company best known for an MP3 player at the time, was about to get into phones.

Finally, space out your innovation into short-term ideas, medium term, say one or two years out, and towards the broader horizon. In other words, don’t wait for the next iPhone; start asking yourself what the next iPhone of your industry would be, and work towards developing that. Sports quotes are a dime a dozen in business writing, but Wayne Gretzky was right when he said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. It’s better to swing, for your business, than to never take the shot. To get a balanced, smart innovation strategy, request a demo.

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