Saturday, June 27, 2009


Harvard's business department has an interesting article about how many things that businesses tout as wonderful innovations are actually nothing of the kind. The article calls them "unnovations," because for all the claims of being innovative, they're not.
All economies depend on innovations to produce the continuing growth that businesses demand. Innovations solve human problems in ways not thought of before, therefore expanding the market. Without a continuous stream of innovation, the market stagnates, producing depressions. The depressions suck for businesses, whose profits painfully decline, and for the people, who often get laid off, compounding the problem.
Take shaving. People have long had unwanted body hair, and it's typical in American society for men to shave off their facial hair, and women to shave off leg hair. The first razors had one blade. When a second blade was added, this was an innovation because it shaved better, when the second blade caught hairs missed by the first one. Also, shavers with disposable heads were an innovation because they were less wasteful than disposable razors. (No need to throw the handle away just because the blade is dull.) Since then, however, the usual tactic of razor companies to differentiate from their competition has been to add more blades. The third blade was delayed for 20 years because of a Saturday Night Live sketch, but I can now go out and buy a razor with 5 blades, and a 6-blade is almost assuredly under development. The extra blades add nothing, (5 blades shaves as well as 2 blades) so they're not really helpful.
A real successful product solves an actual need. Cars, planes, trucks, and boats solve "I need to be over there instead of here," portable music players solve "I want to listen to music, but I'm out for a walk or otherwise away from what I usually use," shovels solve "I need a hole in the ground," hoses solve "I need to put water here, away from the faucet," and computers solve "I need to manipulate information." Products can replace existing ones if they solve the problem better. Before cars, people got around in horse-drawn wagons. The car replaced the wagon, because it was smoother, faster, easier to operate, and cheaper. (Horses are expensive and the care and upkeep of them is difficult.) Also, cars don't poop in the street, so the streets were cleaner post-car. (Society benefited too.)
So real innovations are harder than most people thought. Windows 95 was an innovation (easier to use, eliminated many driver problems, etc), but windows after that generally wasn't. (The main user benefit looks shinier?) Slapping "new and improved" on things doesn't help, people honestly expect a better way to get things done.
Probably there is some idea in your head somewhere about a better way to solve some problem you've had. If more than 1000 people have this problem, you can probably sell the idea, and the business that pursues it will make money. If millions of these ideas are persued, the depression will lift, benefiting everyone.

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