What is Innovation?

What is innovation? The Oxford English Dictionarydefines it, somewhat unhelpfully, as: “the action or process of innovating”; but, then elaborates: “a new method, idea, product, etc.”  It then goes on to note: “innovation is crucial to the continuing success of any organization.”
As innovation is so important, I thought I would unpack the idea a bit. Many people think that “true” innovation is the invention of genuinely novel things which have never before been seen in the world. However, this is a very high bar at which virtually everyone would fail. Humans have been around for over 200,000 years and there are billions of us, so most things, one way or another, have been thought of before.  In my view, this strict definition isn’t particularly helpful.
I think a more useful definition is something like this: “The recognition and implementation of an idea or combination of ideas which brings a unique utility not before seen or used which adds value by fulfilling a consumer need.”
I spent Christmas 2011 reading Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson. I have always thought of Steve Jobs as intrinsically innovative; but, what was special about him was not that he came up with entirely new ideas – the graphical user interface on the Macintosh, for example, had been invented by Xerox Parc and there had been many MP3 players before the iPod – but, that he came up with unique combinations; which, taken together, added real, never-before-seen value to the consumer.
Take the iPod: As a music player, it was certainly very elegantly designed; but, its capacity was well below the best that was available–at the same price–on the market at the time. What Apple did was combine the player with the web (in the form of iTunes) in such a way as the combination was unique. Suddenly, tasks that were really difficult, or close to impossible to do on the player, could be done on the Mac, thus freeing the player to do what it did best: play music. And, by deconstructing the album into songs–and miraculously persuading the music industry to play ball–it created a huge new market for legal downloads. The rest, as they say, is history.
Or take the iPhone: There were smartphones before the iPhone; but, they weren’t very smart. The iPhone’s unique advantage, apart from the legendary great design, was the App Store. Suddenly, the phone could become whatever you wanted it to be; thus, the real revolution in smartphones that we are living through today was born.
Google provides another good example: Google’s revolutionary idea, apart from its blisteringly good search, was AdWords. But, Google didn’t invent key word advertising; that honour went to Idealab that spun-out GoTo.com which was later renamed Overture and was then bought by Yahoo!. However, it was Google who hit the jackpot with search advertising, and it did so by reinventing the model. Overture had ordered ads by whoever bid the most that quite often resulted in the top advertisement not being the most appropriate.  It was simply the one with the deepest pockets.
Google changed the rules. It ordered results partly by the bidding and partly by the success of the ad which was measured by how many people clicked on it and on the quality of the ultimate landing page. And, it also limited the power of those with the deepest pockets by charging only one cent above the amount of the second highest bidder. These innovations revolutionised the medium.
So my argument is innovation comes from  the real innovators who can be—and often are–those that take ideas already out there and reinvent and recombine them in ways which create real utility for the user. As Steve Jobs said, paraphrasing Picasso*: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
In the innovation process at RBI Data Solutions, we always try to think as broadly as we can about customer problems. Of course, we would love to invent some genuinely and completely novel services that the world has never seen; but, we are just as happy if we construct combinations of already-existing components, provided we produce an elegant solution in the end. We are not yet as good as Steve Jobs at this process, but we are working on it.

First published on the internal Reed Elsevier Innovation website, February 2012

Community vs functionality…and the winner is…

Community trumps functionality every time. I’ve just finished reading Steven Levy’s book In the Plex which is a brilliant portrait of the rise of Google. It is staggering just how much change that one company has wrought in the world. But the book ends with Google facing the fact that the new “Google” is Facebook – young, iconoclastic and, crucially, in tune with social instincts.

One in every seven minutes online are spent on Facebook, a phenomenon which has convinced Google, belatedly, that it needs to be in this race – hence Google +.

The fact that community trumps functionality every time was brought home to me last Christmas. All three of my (nearly grown up) children wanted new mobile phones. The two boys were set on a new Android phone – the Samsung Galaxy S2 (actually they wanted the S3 but it isn’t out yet) – but my daughter was adamant that she wanted a Blackberry.

This was painful to me as I have been a long-time Blackberry user who gave up when the iPhone demonstrated what a smartphone should really be like. I tried to talk her into getting another smart phone – an Android or even and iPhone – but she wasn’t having it. So I bought what they each wanted.

On Christmas day the boys were delighted with their S2s – and I have to say they were impressive devices – large, clear screens and masses of power and functionality.

But my daughter was ecstatic with her Blackberry Bold. It wasn’t as expensive as the boys’ phones (and in my view it certainly wasn’t as good)  but she loved it. And the reason? Blackberry’s messenger app BBM. This is the killer app for her and her circle. Everyone, it seems, uses it and the volume of messages she now sends and receives has gone through the roof. I’m not sure this is entirely a good thing, but it has certainly proved a point to me.

The rise of Reddit

Somehow a big shift has happened over the past year without me being aware of it. The first clue was when my sons began to talk about things they had been reading on Reddit.
I remembered Reddit from a few years ago when it was an also-ran to Digg when at one time it looked like it was going to overtake the New York Times. Anyway, for interest I just checked out the recent histories of these two venerable internet brands and you can see what I saw. It seems over the past two years Reddit has been quietly (at least as far as I was concerned) well and truly knocked Digg off its perch.

Update: It seems like I’m not alone in my appreciation of the rise of Reddit!

Update: Another way to look at the change of fortunes…