Updated January 31, 2023
In part 1 of the What Is Innovation? series, we talked about the difference between creativity and innovation. If creativity is the practice of bringing a new perspective and having it add value, innovation is the process of transforming that creativity into value. But even using the most creative tricks I know – like thinking inside the box, avoiding groupthink, and learning through looking – in order to be truly innovative, ideas need to have three distinct characteristics. They need to be new. They need to be great. And they need to be reliable.
Let’s dive into what, specifically, that means, the characteristics of new, great, and reliable ideas, and why it’s crucial that you have all three to be sustainably innovative.
Innovative ideas need to be new
Look at the news from any business media outlet and you’ll see that every company is being told to innovate. Experts tout executing on new ideas as the savior for bigger market share, bigger customers, and bigger revenues. That’s music to every shareholder’s ears.
However, when companies hunt for new ideas for the sake of new ideas, their efforts invariably fall flat. Coca-Cola tried New Coke before rebranding it Coke II and going back to the original recipe. Myspace tried moving into entertainment and music after users jumped ship for Facebook. Colgate launched a line of frozen foods (Colgate beef lasagna anyone?). Bic tried extending its brand into disposable underwear and pantyhose. Frito-Lay made a Cheetos lip balm. Swedish weapons manufacturer Bofors added toothpaste to its product line. Harley-Davidson tried its hand at cologne. R.J. Reynolds found its smokeless cigarettes a tough sell, especially when the company’s own CEO said, “It tastes like shit and smells like a fart. We spent $350 million and ended up with a turd with a tip.”
People think coming up with new things is the answer to business growth without understanding why or even if they should create new things in the first place. We think new = good simply because it’s new. A lot of innovation is actually just coming up with a new idea, assuming it’s good because it’s new, and then watching it crash and burn.
A new idea can be something completely disruptive, like personal computers, video streaming, or smartphones. But to be a new idea, it doesn’t have to be completely revolutionary. It can simply take the essence behind another successful idea and massage it to fit in a new, yet drastically different, environment. For example, the BMW iDrive system was inspired by the video controls from the gaming industry. Retired aeronautical engineer Owen Maclaren used the idea of an airplane’s retractable landing gear to develop the first lightweight foldable baby stroller. McDonald’s based its drive-through design on the principles of a fast Formula 1 pit stop. A new idea simply needs to go beyond the same old thing that’s always been done and bring in fresh inspiration from the outside world. At its root, a new idea is something that’s unexpected.
Over the 20 years I’ve worked in innovation, I’ve found that coming up with more ideas nearly always increases your chances of finding a good idea. The magic number to shoot for? Around 200. Research shows that you don’t start getting to the good stuff until you’ve cleared your mind of all of the obvious answers. If that number scares you, start small. Learn to observe patterns in your everyday life and connect the dots to create new ideas. And if you’re still stuck, try drinking a glass of wine to break through your next bout of creative thinking. In time, you can learn to innovate just like the pros do.
But truly innovative companies understand that being new is just one aspect of a successful idea. They also have to be great.
Innovative ideas have to be great
A great idea makes you feel really good. It inspires you, gets you excited, and engages you emotionally. It has a big wow! factor. Advertising great David Ogilvy describes great ideas as the ones that make you gasp when you first see them and make you jealous you didn’t think of them yourself. Whether people realize they needed the idea or not, it creates appeal and excitement.
I’ll be honest, great is much more of a subjective term than either new or reliable.
A great idea is something that people actually want. How do you know what customers want? By having a customer-centric culture and understanding how, when, and why they buy. You have to be a bit of a problem solver to understand your customers, but the payoff is always worth it. By getting into their heads, your customers will have a significantly better experience, which in turn, makes them want to buy more. Even then, some great ideas fail.
The business landscape is awash with ideas that seemed revolutionary but ended up failing because there was no value to be delivered (or the value didn’t match the price tag), and therefore there wasn’t a market demand. If your company lacks a solid customer-centric culture, you won’t understand what your customers want, you won’t know when their wants have changed, and you won’t be able to adapt.
We were once big fans of brands that are long gone. AOL was an early pioneer in the mid-1990s of using the internet to connect people. As the first company to open up access to the internet en masse, AOL was the most recognized brand on the web in the United States. The PalmPilot helped people organize their lives. It was the first true personal digital assistant and sported a touch screen, stylus, and apps that helped you manage your calendar and tasks and synced with your desktop computer. Of the original handful of social media sites, Myspace had the greatest popularity and influence. MapQuest was the first commercial mapping service that let people pitch their oversized atlas. TiVo gave people freedom from their TV with the ability to pause, rewind, and record TV. All were incredibly innovative in their prime. But when’s the last time you talked about any of them other than as the butt of a joke?
Coming up with an idea that’s a great idea is the first step. However, if the only redeeming quality of your idea is that it’s great, your innovation strategy won’t last. You’ve seen companies like these come out of the box and experience amazing, huge success.
Everybody went crazy over them…but they had one great idea. That’s the best they ever did, and their shooting star quickly fizzled.
It’s not enough for an idea just to be great. You have to be able to rely on it for the long run.
Innovative ideas are reliable
A reliable idea is one on which you can build your business. It will make your company money. It doesn’t matter how cool or exciting your idea may sound, if it’s out of scope for your business, it’s not the direction you should go, or if it doesn’t tie into the purpose of your company, then it’s not feasible.
You can execute a reliable idea. It contributes to the growth of your organization and has a cost benefit. This could be in generating revenue, saving money, using resources (people, time, equipment, etc.) more efficiently, or any other way of delivering financial value.
Reliable ideas also have longevity. There’s the telephone in all of its iterations. Portable music players and being able to carry a thousand songs in your pocket, as Apple showed us, or the ability to Shazam a tune. Think of how the travel industry changed when people could book airline and hotel reservations directly. All of these ideas have endured the test of time.
There are a lot of ideas we wouldn’t rely on (flashing back to Colgate’s frozen lasagna meals). To be considered innovative, you must deliver ideas that people can trust will turn into something that delivers the results you want. You also have to test your ideas by getting feedback from multiple people, refining it into something people truly want and can trust. It’s in companies that foster high-trust environments and welcome collaborative feedback that reliable and innovative ideas can thrive.
But reliability in and of itself isn’t enough to make your company innovative. There are businesses that have one highly reliable idea, and then over time they just cling to that success. After their initial boom, they never really come out with anything new. Every other idea turns into just a slightly different twist on their first success. Companies like Blockbuster and Sears were guilty of this. They both had ideas that served them well for decades, but ultimately that wasn’t enough to withstand changes in either of their industries. They couldn’t turn the hype into innovation. The glory days were too great to let go of, so they never did. And we know how those strategies worked out.
People say coming up with ideas is the easy part. It’s the execution that makes or breaks innovation. I beg to differ. I believe that the reason most ideas are so hard to implement is that they don’t have all three aspects of success: being new, great, and reliable.
A new idea surprises and delights people because it’s unexpected.
A great idea inspires and excites you.
A reliable idea makes you money.
Our task is to consistently come up with new, great, and reliable ideas.
In part 3 of this series, we’ll look at how to put it all together to be truly innovative in a sustainable way.