What's the better innovation: Big 'I' or little 'i'?

Roger La Salle

Use of the word “innovation” first began to gain momentum in the 1980s, and by the year 2000, innovation was the “flavor of the month”, with everybody being told that their businesses needed to embrace innovation or risk falling by the wayside.

While we are being told to embrace the innovation imperative, what does this word that has become so popular really mean, and what is the call to action to initiate innovation?

A very popular definition of innovation seems to refer to the process of taking an idea or an opportunity from the mind to market. In other words, innovation is the process of turning an idea into a commercial outcome. While this may be a popular definition, unfortunately it doesn’t really represent a call to action, for what do you do with the word innovation when it is so described? Perhaps a better and more useful definition, and one more closely aligned with what a dictionary may define as innovation, is the process of change. Indeed, the best definition of the word innovation is “change that adds value”. This is the call to action. It represents the initiative to make changes to what already exists, whether they are products, processes or services.

Consider this interesting fact: The top 10 percent of electronic companies worldwide replace some 80 percent of their products every five years. Such is their rate of innovation. For example, if you purchased a Sony or Panasonic video camera or cell phone today, do you think you could purchase the same product in five years? Not likely. It is doubtful if you would be able to purchase the same one just 18 months into the future. Yes, the top electronics companies are innovation experts.  

In a recent book called “Creating Wealth” by Lester Thurow, some interesting statistics are cited: In the 1920s the life expectancy of a publicly listed company in the USA was some 65 years. By the 1990s, this figure has fallen to less than 10 years. Of the companies forming the original list of the Standard and Poor’s Index, only one, General Electric still survives today, and to do so, GE has had to constantly re-invent itself to remain relevant.

Interestingly, some of the less initiated in this business often use the word innovator interchangeably with invention. This is often done in a polite and misguided endeavour to differentiate the person in question from the classic stereotypical inventor, represented as some excentric being with fuzzy white hair and usually wearing a white dust coat.

In fact, innovation and invention are different.

Whereas innovation may be defined as change that adds value, invention may be perhaps best defined as something new, novel and without precedent.

Notwithstanding the above, most inventions are in fact created by making improvements to existing things. There are few totally new inventions. However, whereas novelty is an essential part of an invention, novelty is not an essential part of an innovation.

When it comes to understanding innovation further, some texts refer to so-called big “I”, and little “i”. The former refers to big or disruptive innovations that totally change the landscape of a business, its products or the dynamics of the market. In contrast, little “i” refers more to incremental changes or improvements to businesses and products.

In theory, or more likely with the benefit of hindsight, many thinkers and writers on the subject refer to big “I” as essential for businesses to survive for the longer terms. The push is for businesses to “disrupt” themselves and radically change for the better following in the footsteps of so many companies cited as case studies that have successfully done so beforehand.

Nokia may be one exceptional example of a company that successfully migrated its core business from lumber to electronics. It did this after it correctly saw the growing resistance to the use of the dwindling natural resource of timber, and the emergence of the new mobile phone business with almost unlimited consumer market potential. This is a wonderful success story operating on the big “I” model.

General Electric is another company that has reinvented itself and is now strong in the financial sector. However, in doing so, GE took the safe option in that while creating its new enterprise, it did not turn its back on its traditional engineering business. Instead, it used its brand strength to underpin a successful new endeavour.

Many texts refer to these case studies as a blueprint for the future and an endorsement of big “I” as the means to renewed riches as companies model themselves on the Nokia style of rebirth. Unfortunately, all of these case studies are just that – studies in hindsight of a few “stars” that have successfully crossed the bridge to new horizons. Rear vision is a wonderful thing, but if you look at the history of pioneers, you will find the path littered with the corpses of those who dared to be first, but failed, as is so often the case. The problem is that these pioneers are all too seldom heard of, and thus the case studies they could present are not brought to our attention.

Consider some of the so-called disruptive technologies that have either failed or undergone a very difficult and expensive birth, only to succeed later in the hands of competitors who ultimately stole the market.

Examples of notable failures may include the ill-fated COMET jet passenger liner, a revolution in its day, plagued with technology problems whose ultimate solution enabled Boeing, untarnished by the pioneering COMET failures, to win the world market for passenger jets. Concorde is another example of a technology before its time. Ultimately, supersonic passenger transport will become commonplace, but not to the benefit of the Concorde pioneers.

The facsimile machine invention was credited to Scotsman Alexander Bain before the turn of the 20th century. However, it was not until the Japanese developed and used this technology within their own businesses to enable people to understand their application that this machine came into popular use.

The helicopter is another example of an invention that was many years in development and refinement, and even after successful flight was demonstrated, was still largely considered to be a relatively useless novelty.

The electric light, when finally brought to market, suffered enormous resistance, especially from the gas companies. In supplying power to the newfangled electric light, Thomas Edison chose to use direct current (DC) and was a brave pioneer, but ultimately the vastly superior alternating current (AC) method was developed and is now deployed worldwide. Edison, as the pioneer in the field, was not the ultimate winner.

Even the ubiquitous computer and the Internet took many years to be adopted by the greater community. And had it not been for the development of both word processing and spreadsheets, computers today would be little more than scientific novelties and platforms for games.

The invention of the personal computer is credited to Steve Jobs at Apple, but it was IBM, with its following technology, that took the cream of the business. Though Jobs made his fortune with Apple, it was the second into the market who won the race.

There are countless example of pioneers who failed in their venture and did not even rate a mention in the end game, a game that was often won by followers into the business.

On that basis of the above, you may well ask: Where is the place for big “I” vs. little “i”?

There can be no doubt that little “i” is far easier to conceive and initiate than big “I”; and little “i” carries far less risk. So, what is it to be?

For my money, little “i” wins every time.

About the author:
Roger La Salle is the creator of the “Matrix Thinking” technique and is a widely sought after as an international speaker on innovation, opportunity and business development. He is the author of three books, director and former CEO of the Innovation Centre of Victoria (INNOVIC), as well as a number of companies both in Australian and overseas. He has been responsible for a number of successful technology start-ups, and in 2004 was a regular panelist on the ABC New Inventors TV program. In 2005, he was appointed to the “Chair of Innovation” at The Queens University in Belfast. Matrix Thinking is now used in more than 26 countries. For more information, visit www.matrixthinking.com.

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