Innovation · January 7, 2022

Another ‘innovative’ product – is it?

Hardly a product is launched today without it being termed as ‘innovative’. The word has become so overused that anything ‘new’ is marketed as a result of innovation.

So what is innovation? And how does it differ from invention? Let’s clarify.

First of all, we need to distinguish between business innovation and product innovation. Few examples of business innovation first:

  1. When the light bulb manufacturers in the 1920s began degrading the quality of light bulbs knowingly, with the sole intent of increasing their sales, it was certainly an innovative strategy. Evil, yes, but innovative nonetheless! This is business innovation.
  1. When SouthWest airlines started their low-fare no-frills flights which almost magically put them far ahead of their competitors in terms of profitability, that was also business innovation.
  1. The sudden increase in beer sales when they are put next to baby diapers in a retail store is also a type of business innovation.

In all of the above examples, you see, the product itself did not improve for the customer. In fact, in the first example, it actually deteriorated.

Product innovation, on the other hand, improves a product. However, not all improvements can be termed as innovations. 

  1. When Colgate launched a new toothpaste with active salt in it, it could be considered as an improvement but hardly an innovation.
  2. Similarly, a toothpaste that tastes better, although certainly an improvement over one with a bitter taste, is far from an innovation.
  3. A more powerful engine, a bigger display, a slightly longer lasting battery – these are all improvements but not innovations.
  4. Aesthetic improvements in products might increase their sales, but they cannot be considered as product innovations.

An ‘innovative’ change in a product should significantly increase its utility.

Incremental improvements, although useful, are hardly innovations. Remember the famous quote: the electric bulb was not invented by incremental improvements in candles.

Now, take, for example, this fancy wheel which measures length. Many would be tempted to call it an innovation but really it’s not! It can’t do the job as well as its simpler alternative, a measuring tape. At most, it’s a novelty.

The same can be said for the Swype keyboard on smartphones. It is a new way of inputting text, sure, but does not necessarily lead to a faster or more convenient typing experience.

Just because a product is “new” or “unique” does not make it innovative.

The anti-lock braking system, originally developed in the 1920s actually mitigated road accidents by bringing a vehicle to a stop in a shorter distance. This was a real innovation.

The portrait mode in your phone helps you take better photos. The ambient noise cancellation technology in your earphones helps the other person hear you more clearly. These are real innovations too.

If you see, almost all of these real innovations can be called ‘inventions’ – which is a word with a more precise definition, thanks to the fact that they can be patented.

The patent laws do a very good job of defining what qualifies an invention. There are 3 conditions. Two of them, newness and usefulness, we have already covered. The third one is more subtle. Also, I think it is also the most characterizing among the three. It’s this:

An invention is not obvious.

This is also true for all kinds of innovations – they are not obvious. Reiterate over the above examples of innovation:

  1. A (comparatively) worse customer experience helped SouthWest get more customers.
  2. Nobody in their right mind would think of putting beer racks close to diaper packs in a retail store.
  3. In the case of ABS brakes, it was definitely not ‘obvious’ to think that releasing the brake could actually lead to a shorter braking distance.

Even though the dots may connect in a sensible way in the hindsight, true innovations are always counter-intuitive to some extent. They require a shift in perspective to arrive at it. And probably that’s why they are rare.

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Cover Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash