Prevailing business culture these days is obsessed with speed.
People are obsessed with fast prototyping, failing fast, and getting to market fast. But too often people don’t stop to think whether their innovation efforts are going too fast.
So what is premature innovation?
Well, premature innovation is what happens when you create a cool idea or a fabulous piece of technology, but then commercialize it before you can actually turn it into a complete solution that unlocks enough customer value that potential customers are willing to abandon their existing solutions (including the dreaded ‘do nothing’ solution).
What are some examples?
In the spring of 1998, Saehan released the first digital music mp3 player – the Saehan MPMan. About the same time, Compaq engineers built a hard-drive-based MP3 player with 6GB of storage capacity, allowing 200 times the storage capacity of the 32MB FlashRAM-based players dominating the market at the time, but the project got a “no!” from Compaq management.
Was this a dumb decision by Compaq management?
Not if you believe that there is such a thing as premature innovation.
Compaq management may have recognized that the confusing interfaces on digital music players, and clunky software for loading music onto the devices would limit their potential, and that they did not yet have a solution to unlock the value in those key areas.
There are many other examples of premature innovation that we could cover here – Apple Newton, Windows Mobile, General Motors EV1 and more, but instead let’s look at another piece of technology—Gorilla Glass—with a quote from Wikipedia:
“Corning’s Gorilla Glass is a high-strength alkali-aluminosilicate thin sheet glass used as a protective cover glass for high-end display devices such as notebook PCs, televisions, and mobile phones. Originally invented in 1962, it did not find commercial applications until 2008.”
Notice that for almost 50 years Corning held onto this piece of technology until they could identify how to properly unlock value from it. This is the key. Just because you have a great idea or a great piece of technology does not mean that you have all of the things you need to unlock the value or that customers are ready to understand or take advantage of that value now.
But, too often entrepreneurs and marketers don’t have the discipline to identify where the real value is going to be unlocked and make sure that their solution, marketing and other elements will do that.
How do you tell if you’re too early?
It is not always easy to tell whether your innovation is premature. One way to tell is whether people outside the product development process (especially targeted customers) understand the value right away when you explain it to them (or whether they have lots of questions). If they have lots of questions about your solution and those questions are hard to answer, you might be too early. If the product or service is not a joy to use, you might be creating a premature innovation. If people don’t try to steal your potential innovation or volunteer to work on it for free, you might also be too early (I’m only half kidding).
What are the risks of being too early?
Premature innovation can be painful because of the ridicule you may suffer as a result. Or, you may lose in the marketplace as a result of premature innovation if the competition can learn faster from your premature innovation than you, or can explain the value of your innovation better than you.
Can you avoid or mitigate the risks of premature innovation?
Premature innovation can be avoided by understanding that value comes not just from the product or service you create, but also from the packaging, the marketing, software or other solution elements such as possibly having a network of service providers or partners. At the same time there are a few questions you should ask yourself:
- Are we solving enough pain in our new solution to overcome the pain of switching?
- Where is the greatest pain being created in our new solution?
- Can we solve the pain we’re creating before a competitor sees it and solves it first?
- Are we unlocking the key elements of value in our launch or should we wait until we can?
Do you ever want to launch too early?
There are times when you actually want to be too early, but not many. Probably the number one reason to launch too early is when you can admit to yourself that don’t actually know where the value in a solution area needs to be unlocked. In these situations you may be hoping that REAL customers may uncover it for you (particularly in the areas of marketing, packaging, distribution, etc.) – BUT you must stand ready to instrument for learning and make fast changes post-launch. It’s a risky strategy.
Don’t believe the hype! Innovation is not about speed. Innovation is about providing the right value in the right solution to the right customers at the right time to solve the right problem. Do this and you will avoid embarrassing premature innovation. Happy innovating!
Braden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden is also the editor of Blogging Innovation and founder of Business Strategy Innovation, a consultancy focusing on innovation and marketing strategy, and @innovate on Twitter.