Ever wonder why our best laid plans for the big idea often fall short of their promise? One answer is that more often than not the solution doesn’t fit a clear and pressing need. Often the idea is so futuristic that even early adopters don’t quite get it and shy away from it.
The problem is that when we’re trying to jump the curve, we mistake invention for innovation. A quick scan of U.S. Patent & Trademark Office data tells the story: since 2000, the average number of patents granted annually is about 183,000. But historically only about .2%, roughly 365 (one a day!) will go on to become useful innovations.
At the root of the challenge are two deadly design dangers. The first is confusing an unarticulated need in the market with a non-existent one. In other words, attempting to manufacture a need. Without the great detective work homework needed to uncover an unvoiced, unanswered need, we fall prey to a design bias. As the late Peter Drucker said: “Don’t try to innovate for the future. It’s not enough to be able to say ‘In twenty-five years there will be so many very old people that they will need this.”
Take the case of Mars, Inc. In 2005 it launched six “Ethel’s Chocolate Lounge” stores in the Chicago area. Do people really need or want a chocolate lounge, ala Starbucks? Executives at Mars were betting that chocolate would be the new coffee. One Mars executive was quoted as saying, “You see an attorney and his administrative assistant both standing in line to splurge on a $4 cup of coffee, why not chocolate?” Raise your hand if you have the immediate and overwhelming need to linger over a plate of premium chocolate ($8 to $45) instead of a warm latte on the way to work. In April 2009 Mars announced that it’s closing all the Chicago stores.
Compare this to Gucci, who reversed the “designer knows best” mindset in favor of actually understanding what customers want. Interesting, it was a Unilever executive schooled in ice cream making to do it. His name is Robert Pole, and he took over the helm of Gucci in 2005 and has successfully turned the brand around.
The second design danger is confusing long lead times with future needs. The incubation and design period of the Toyota Prius lasted nearly seven years, but Toyota would have never even begun product development for an innovation that did not, if successful, have immediate application to an existing need.
What is a long lead time? Try thirty years. When your goal is to design and manufacture an artificial, implantable human heart, two or three decades is just about right. That’s the ultimate mission of the AbioCor, a heart implant made by Abiomed. The journey began in the mid 1970s, and the company founders knew that the development phase would take decades. When Abiomed began, the technology simply didn’t exist, but the company knew it would be a generation before needed technologies would emerge. Along the way, Abiomed developed lesser technologies that became successful businesses helping millions of patients: an artificial heart valve, a cardiac-arrest system, and an intra-aortic balloon pump.
The pressing need for an artificial human heart has always been there. Had it been developed thirty years ago, it would have had immediate clinical application.
Lesson: don’t try to create a need, and don’t confuse need time with lead time.
For more insights from Matthew E. May, visit his past blog posts here and follow him on Twitter here.