How Innovative Do You Want To Be?

Innovation. One of the key things that’s supposed to differentiate you from your competition. It’s one of the things we value the most about being in business for ourselves. We’ve been told “If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.”

I used to believe this. It’s been one of the things that’s driven me and my businesses over the last 35+ years. But when I sit down and really look at the history and experience of the innovations, and the resulting business that’s resulted from those innovations, I have to take pause.

Personally, I derive a great deal of satisfaction from innovation. I love solving problems and finding a better way of doing things. But there’s a problem with it. Often the problems we choose to solve are only problems for us, and not others. At least, it isn’t a problem for them yet. And there in lies the dilemma.

People and companies that make innovation a key part of their existence position themselves at the front of technology, the market, or whatever. They’re at the cutting or bleeding edge. We used to joke about it, but when times get tight, business is off, and cash needs to be conserved, being on the bleeding edge can be dangerous to your business health. I don’t think it’s any coincidence the companies that innovate the ideas and introduce them are rarely the companies that make money with them.

Here’s the problem. For those on the edge, the problem is apparent and this triggers the need to solve it. For those not on the edge, well, they many not even know a problem exists. When this is the case, the innovators have to take valuable time and spend a bunch of money to educate the market to the extent and need for the problem to be solved. This diverts resources away from the innovation. Since the problem isn’t compelling for them, it’s easy not to embrace or invest in the solution.

Over the years, on more than one occasion, people have approached me at seminars, workshops, tradeshows, and so on and said something to the effect: “Mark, most of the time I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I know I’m going to need to know about in the future.” I used to laugh at it, but it got me to thinking what they were really saying.

It comes down to this. New, innovative ideas, inventions, procedures and the like are of little or no value unless they are tried, implemented, and embraced by the market. We all want a competitive advantage, but it is a thin line we walk between being too far out and having an advantage.

One of the main reasons I write and speak is to expose ideas. I’ve been criticized for this in the past as giving away my “secrets.” I laugh at this because there really are no secrets. Secrets usually mean some shortcut or quick fix to a problem that doesn’t require much effort. Most secrets are just incremental efficiency improvements.

My response to this charge is that it’s dangerous to be too far ahead. It’s a lot like running a long distance race. If you’re a good runner, it’s easy to separate yourself from the pack and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be too far ahead before you realiz you’ve missed a marker and you’re off course. By the time you realize you’re out of the race, you may not be able to recover.

Such is the case with innovation. Especially when it comes to technology. All those new cool gadgets and gizmos, all the new software and operating systems do no good if they aren’t reliable (meaning they work when you need them to work,) or there are other alternative innovations competing with them.

I’m not saying to stop innovating. That would be fundamentally wrong. What I am saying is to make sure the innovation is just slightly ahead of where the market currently is. If it’s an incremental improvement, pretty much everyone will “get it” and it becomes a no brainer to adopt.

It’s the truly innovative, industry changing innovations that are dangerous. Keep an eye out for who is adopting. Open a dialog with them. As long as you aren’t competitive in the same market, they’ll welcome your inquiries. You’ll give them someone else to commiserate with when the dang things break down or don’t work the way they’re supposed to.

For those with true innovations, the path is the same. Create a breadcrumb trail of steps toward the new innovation. The breadcrumbs are the small, babystep innovations that are the no brainers. Introduce them fairly quickly over a few months and you’ll have a much better chance of acceptance.

Adopting new ideas is a dangerous proposition. The inherent nature of people is to be risk averse. Change scares them. Business owners are especially prone to this. They don’t want to mess with something unless it’s broken. Why move ahead when we’re making money doing what we’re doing? That’s the subject of a whole new post.

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