Welcome guest blogger and Friend of Bauman (FOB), Steve Rivkin of Rivkin & Associates, LLC. This article is the second in a four-part series on innovation.
New ideas are the true “capital” in capitalism. Because as management maestro Peter Drucker observed years ago in The Age of Discontinuity, “Every product, every process, every technology, every market eventually becomes old.” Why then do most new ideas, and most new products, die a quick death? Why does so much well-intentioned effort run off the road?
Our answer is that senior managers often fail to ask the right questions as new ideas percolate through their companies. Here’s a look at the second of those four questions (find the first question and answer here):
2. Is it really an improvement over what already exists?
That means being different in ways that are meaningful to the consumer – especially to the uncommitted user.
- Consider the humble vacuum cleaner. One night in the 1870s in a London restaurant, an engineer named Hubert Cecil Booth placed his handkerchief to his mouth, leaned close to a velvet couch and breathed in. He found a film of dirt on the other side of the cloth. Up to that point, “cleaning” a room meant using coal-powered fans to blow dirt in all directions. It might have worked in the immediate vicinity, but it turned velvet couches (not to mention drapes and clothing) into dirt reservoirs. Engineer Booth realized that blowing had to go and that its flip side – inhaling – was the answer. So he designed fans that drew air into pillowcases to catch the dust. Queen Victoria bought two for Buckingham Palace. Soon, a small industry of men with horse-drawn machines appeared on the streets, shouting “vacuum cleaner man!” to promote a service that, well, sucked. Three decades later came Hoover, Eureka and Electrolux with their much-improved models. Vacuum cleaner makers were high-tech companies then – the Intels of their day.
- Once there was AM radio, and only AM radio. Then came the superior clarity of FM. Then came to our eardrums Sirius and XM, two satellite radio providers now merged into one broadcaster. Modeled along the lines of cable TV, satellite radio delivers no (or some) advertising and more than 100 CD-sound-quality channels beamed into homes and automobiles. An improvement? Yes, but, like cable TV, it will cost you – $14.49 or thereabouts per month.
- R. J. Reynolds spent a fortune on the first smokeless cigarette. Their theory for this supposed improvement was that smokeless cigarettes would appeal to nonsmokers. Unfortunately, nonsmokers don’t buy cigarettes. Something like $325 million went up in smoke (or should we say nonsmoke?) with the launch of the Premier brand. The cigarettes were hard to light, did not generate any ash (which smokers love to tap and flick), and smelled bad. Some improvement.
- Pepsi introduced a clear cola, christened Crystal Pepsi. It must have taken a lot of effort to remove the amber color from cola. But adjusting those molecules didn’t adjust any perceptions. We all know colas are brown, not clear. No one wanted to swallow the substitution. Crystal Pepsi? It fizzled fast.
Check back next week for question number three: Is it easier to use than what already exists?