Why Innovation is not overrated

Scott Berkun wrote a post on ‘Why Innovation is Overrated’. He argues that successful organizations are successful not because they’re great innovators, more so because they are excellent at ‘making good things’. Indeed, none of the companies that he’s discussed were first in their field:

Apple did not invent the cell-phone, Motorola did. The first touchscreen was created in 1971. Archie, the world’s first Search engine was running in 1990, and pay-per-click was pioneered at Goto.com. And yes, the first motion picture was created by Edison in 1889.

I agree with Scott’s statement that ‘Making good things people love is the true spine of these companies successes’. But ignoring breakthroughs? I’m not sure if I get the drift? Everything that can be invented has been invented?

The DynaTAC, “The brick“, weighed 2 pounds, and offered just a half-hour of talk time for every recharging. Sure, it was a good thing, but it wasn’t good enough. In fact you wouldn’t even call it a cell phone. I’d blame a lot on innovation. ‘Merry Christmas’, the first text message was sent in 1992. NTT DoCoMo, a company that invested heavily in R&D came up with the ‘i-mode‘ to offer internet and email to its subscribers in 1999. Sometime in Y2K, the first Mp3 Phone was announced. And then in 2001, Sharp introduced the first Megapixel camera-phone. And you know what, now that we have e-books, Polymer Vision recently announced the Readius.

Now, while I agree that these are all truly great things, how did all those technologists come up with all those brilliant ideas? It would be tempting to lean on the powerful words in the vocabularies of those visionaries – problem, experiment, solve, exploration, change, risk and prototype. Sure, but don’t these very words lead to that one great thing – innovation?

Scott suggest that we don’t need to ask ourselves toothless questions such as ‘How can we be innovative?’ But, in fact, if we don’t…..we fall into a commodity trap. Price wars. Advertising wars. The fact is, we need innovation….processes and systems that take technological progress, discoveries, inventions, and bring them to commercial reality. If that didn’t happen, neither Scott nor I would be blogging today.


  1. The best environment for innovation is a high wage society where labor is relatively scarce. Most innovations are made in response to the high cost of labor; voice mail, email, internet, bar codes, industrial robots etc.

    In the current race to the bottom for low cost labor there is no reason to innovate. What goes for innovation today is just a rehash or combination of old ideas. Vista, Facebook etc. are nice to have incremental improvements. Nice to haves do not always pay the bills. In societies with low labor cost innovation stagnates. Some countries are still using steam locomotives because the labor to run them is so cheap. Until we return to our roots as a high wage society do not look for any new groundbreaking ideas.


  2. Hmm… thanks for your input, but not sure where you’re coming from Tom.

    Texas Instruments’ digital light processor (trademarked as DLP), built on the basis of a radically innovative chip called a Digital Micro mirror device that holds thousands of addressable mirrors… enables higher resolution in projection equipment.

    General Electric’s digital x-ray enables whole new methods for seeing motion inside the body.

    Otis Elevator’s mile high elevator design now enables us to build skyscrapers that can attain heights never previously considered conceivable.

    Analog Devices’ accelerometer chip allows novel solutions in gaming, sports, and medical diagnostics.

    These are a few of the projects we studied over ten years ago (and wrote about in our first book, titled Radical Innovation: How Mature Firms can Outsmart Upstarts, Visit http://www.radicalinnovation.com) that have subsequently changed the game in their industries.

    Not one of them was predicated on saving labor costs. It’s true that reducing costs, be they labor, materials or other, are key drivers of innovation, but so is improvement in the standard of living.


  3. I find that a lot of the innovation literature is far too focused on consumer markets. I ‘d like to see you guys use examples from enterprise markets. Am just reading ‘the box’ on container shipping… way more exciting as an innovation story than the iPhone.


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