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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Basically Anything Can Be Innovated

by Hutch Carpenter

Basically Anything Can Be InnovatedIn a recent post, Four Quadrants of Innovation, I described one type of innovation as leveraging existing technologies, serving existing customers. In popular culture, this type of innovation is... well, frankly it's boring. No cool new advances, no new stuff you haven't tried before.

But what is compelling about this type of innovation is how well it fits Clayton Christensen's focus on understanding the "job" your product has been hired to do. Companies need to stay on top of their products, and changes in customer behaviors. Sometimes that's sexy new technology advances. Mostly, it's not. Rather, it's good old roll-up-the-sleeves and innovate to meet changing customer needs and expectations.

SlideShare CEO Rashmi Sinha wrote a great post recently where she asked Is it time to reimagine your product or service? She makes the point that many web services reflect their vintage year. They fail to evolve as the market does, ultimately falling further behind the curve of customer expectations.

Rashmi Sinha's post very much reminds me of Clayton's Christensen's point of view. Your customers have:
  • Requirements you have not yet discovered at any given point in time

  • Changing requirements over time that you need to decide whether to meet

A New Stoplight InnovationOn top of that, there's something deeper in the Sinha's post. There are times you need to push need innovations, even if your customers aren't yet asking for them. Let your customers catch up to you.

These points don't just apply to web services. They apply to all manner of products and services. Everything can be innovated. One key is to understand that sometimes innovation comes in service delivery or business models, not just product features.

Even things you wouldn't expect to be innovated, can indeed be innovated.

In line with this, I came across a great post by Jake Kuramoto of Oracle AppsLab. In Unexpected Innovation, Jake notes two recent innovations he has seen with...

...traffic lights. Of all things.

Yes, Traffic Lights Can Be Innovated

The first innovation is actually not all that surprising, and really is the application of existing technology. New lights use energy efficient LED bulbs. They have some issues to be worked out in terms of their ability to melt accumulated snow. But they make a lot of sense.

The second innovation is one that really speaks to a deeper understanding of what's going with traffic lights. See the pictures at the top of this post? Designer Damjan Stankovic came up with a concept where a timer is added to stoplights. Stankovic posits these benefits of such a timer:
  • Less pollution. Drivers can turn their engines off and cut carbon emissions while waiting for the green light.

  • Less fuel consumption. Turning off your vehicle while waiting on the traffic light can lower fuel consumption in the long run.

  • Less stress. Since you know exactly how long you have to wait you can sit back and clear your head for a while.

  • Safer driving. With the Eko light both drivers and pedestrians can be fully aware of how much time they have left before the light changes and that way reduce the chance for potential traffic accidents.

That last bullet is the benefit that intrigues me most, in terms of the job I want a stoplight to do: safer driving. Here in San Francisco, we have walk signals at intersections that include countdowns. When the WALK signals appears, you can see how many seconds are left to cross the street.

Both Jake Kuramoto use these walk signal countdowns in a different way. When you are driving, you can see the countdowns. If you're, say 50 meters out, this gives you something of an advantage in how you approach the intersection. When there are only a few seconds left, you know the light will be yellow well before you get to the intersection. With kids in the car, I slow down to be ready to stop for what will be a late yellow light by the time I reach the intersection.

Now if someone had asked me, I wouldn't have come up with a requirement for traffic lights to have timers. But because someone put those countdowns on the walk signals, I've found myself using them in my driving when they are available. And Stankovic's design makes me realize that, "hey, I want those timers on traffic lights."

Which goes to show you. Everything can be innovated upon. Even the most... uh... pedestrian of products and services.

Finally, I love this quote from Amazon's Jeff Bezos in a Newsweek interview:

"There's a tendency, I think, for executives to think that the right course of action is to stick to the knitting - stick with what you're good at. That may be a generally good rule, but the problem is the world changes out from under you if you're not constantly adding to your skill set."

Markets are always shifting. Don't think that anything is immune from innovation.

Image Credits: John Chuckman, Damjan Stankovic

Hutch CarpenterHutch Carpenter is the Vice President of Product at Spigit. Spigit integrates social collaboration tools into a SaaS enterprise idea management platform used by global Fortune 2000 firms to drive innovation.

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OpenID rickladd said...


You make some interesting point here. Where I work (lots of Rocket Scientists), many of our Engineers/Scientists have been inventing for years. Thanks to some recent training, they're now beginning to realize that invention is not the same as innovation and they're looking for business cases as well as the "gee whiz" factor.

Regardless, in our business we have been making many sustaining innovations and, in the case of rocket engines that put people into space, any advance in safety or reliability is a big plus for the customer (NASA - the American taxpayer; take your pick).

We do have a tendency to think of innovation as entirely related to hardware and I'm trying to point out it goes much farther and deeper than that. We have many processes that are incredibly cumbersome and, no doubt, without a great deal of effort, numerous innovations could be made to increase both the efficiency and effectiveness with which we get our work done.

I love the traffic light concept. In my neck of the wood we have installed lots of timers, but they are primarily for pedestrians and they aren't uniform, so if you're waiting at a light you have to be looking at cross traffic signals to determine (and not precisely) how much time remains before you will have the green light. The concept you've shown seems like a great addition for vehicles waiting for the light to change.

You're right. There's are an infinite number of products, processes, etc. which can benefit from innovation.

One more thing (and, btw, it really pisses me off I can't see your post while writing this without opening up another tab, but that's another story). I also believe waiting for one's customer to always point the way is not a terribly robust methodology for innovation. While I don't think new ideas just spring out of the mind without some sort of driving condition creating the need, I do think innovators quite frequently are capable of anticipating needs before customers. There's nothing wrong with moving out a bit ahead, as long as it isn't too far ahead and there truly won't be a market for the "advance".

7:09 PM  

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