Uniqueness Isn’t Enough When It Comes to Innovation

Vandy Van Wagener discusses the importance of meaningful uniqueness in innovation.

Uniqueness Isn’t Enough When It Comes to Innovation

The question rattling around in my head today is why is there so much frustration out there with innovation programs? You know … “We tried innovation, but it was too hard.” Or “We put a lot into innovation and it didn’t work.” Or, “We’re out of rope, we’ve got to get back to cost savings”. 

My sense is that too many of us get way too far down the road of an invention without a rightful sense of whether the outcome will be truly meaningful to our customers. Especially in an era when so much is digital in nature and/or can be outsourced, it’s even easier to be lured into doing something new because it can be done. But that doesn’t make it meaningful. Have you ever ended up pursuing a difference simply for the sake of difference?

The evolution of the iPod is a great example of the difference between uniqueness and meaningful uniqueness. Recall that before the iPod, the world had already seen the emergence of unique small playback devices, devices that played a ton of songs, and even some sharing platforms. But Steve Jobs wove all three inventions together -- along with a bit of his marketing magic, design sense, and a simple interface -- and all of a sudden made the uniqueness meaningful and useful. In turn, the way we consume personal music was forever changed.

We could get lost in a discussion right now about how meaningfulness relates to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But, unfortunately, my freshman year psychology is rusty at best. However, here are some tips for using meaningful uniqueness to drive your innovation:

1. Focus on your customer, not your competitor. While differentiation can come from competitive focus, meaningfulness and true innovation can only come from a superior understanding of your customer … their needs, frustrations, and aspirations.

2. Recognize that the more discontinuous you are aiming to be, the less the customer can articulate what they need. Customers can be reasonably effective at articulating the near-in. But, if you’re aiming farther out, be prepared to have to hypothesize/test/learn/iterate.

3. Depending on where you are in Maslow’s hierarchy, you might earn the next level of meaningfulness with improved delivery of a product benefit, a service benefit, or higher order personal or community benefits. At the end of the day, it’s about resonance. Resonance can be hard to find, but is unmistakable when you hit the chord.

4. If I were to suggest one metric that I think is indicative of the meaningfulness of an innovation, it is to see if the target customer would be willing to pay more for the new proposition – even if you aren’t necessarily going down the premium pricing road. I’ve found research done by my old colleague Doug Hall (founder of Innovation Engineering -- http://www.innovationengineering.org/) very persuasive on this. If the customer cares – really cares – then they’ll be willing to put their money where their mouths are.

So, here’s a current question for you – how meaningful an innovation is the Apple Watch?