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The essence of innovation

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The essence of innovation

Marco Moreira

This post is part of the Innovation 101 series, a collection of essays exploring this topic from various perspectives

As Paul Graham said, the essence of innovation is to make something people want. Therefore, you don't have an innovation (or a business) until you have made something people want. Why then do we have so many startups and big companies out there claiming to be "innovative"? Let's explore...

In every form of human activity, there's talking the talk and walking the walk. The posers vs the doers. You have seen this before: the guy who shows up to the pickup game in the latest gear, warms up for 45min, triple checks his biometrics monitor before the game begins and ends up on the bench inside the first 15min. In business, the Dilbert cartoons have immortalized the quintessential clueless middle manager who is better at company politics than actually producing value for customers. The list goes on and on...

The "posers vs doers" phenomenon is no different in innovation: there's an immense amount of noise for every bit of signal. This is true of startups as well as Fortune 500 companies with seemingly infinite resources. Innovation (i.e. making things better for people) is hard after all. So how do you separate the fluff from the essence? A hobby from a valuable innovation? I believe the essence of innovation comes down to successfully answering 3 simple (though not easy) questions, in order of priority:

1) Who are you helping?

Even as the Lean Startup took the world by storm and became gospel among innovators out there, the fact remains that the vast majority of attempts at innovation are still solutions looking for problems. This is because entrepreneurs, in what Steve Jobs embodied with his "reality distortion field", usually fall so deeply in love with their idea that they forget to ask other people (read: potential customers) if they agree (read: will buy it)! I've personally made this crucial mistake and I see smart, experienced, funded people do it regularly, too. Don't let it happen to you!

The Fluff

Describing an idea in terms of its features instead of what burning problems it solves (huge red flag)

The Essence 

A clear, validated articulation of who needs your product from as many angles as possible (demographics, profession, income, location, etc)

Is this guy helping someone or just solving a puzzle to validate his own cleverness?

Is this guy helping someone or just solving a puzzle to validate his own cleverness?

2) What important problem are you solving for your customers?

Assuming you somehow found more people other than yourself who may have a problem worth solving, your next step is to determine HOW important that problem is to them. This is essential because of one big reason: the more important a problem is for someone, the more likely she is to be looking (and willing to pay) for a solution. People will just live on with unimportant problems, which we call nuisances. Your goal is to only solve important problems!

The Fluff

Trying to make a problem seem more important to people than what they consider it to be on their own.

The Essence

  • Getting passionate reactions from people automatically when you simply describe a problem they may have (anger, excitement, revolt).
  • The presence of a “hack” that partially solves that problem today, usually in an “expensive” (time, money, complexity) and non-scalable way (ie. it works for that one person, but not for everyone who has that problem). In my opinion, this signal is problem validation gold and its absence is almost surely evidence that the problem is just a nuisance.

3) Is your solution much better than the status quo?

Humans are creatures of habit. Our brain is naturally lazy and does not want us to spend energy learning new ways of doing things which we already know how to do. This is what prevents you from ditching that horrible alarm clock that loses the time whenever the power runs out or that mountain of sticky notes and paper annotations piling up on your desk. There are solutions for those things, but you still haven’t adopted them. The adoption of an innovation is the product of the importance of the problem times how much better than the status quo the new solution is. In a real sense, you have to shoot for massive improvement over the status quo in order to overcome the inertia of established habits.

The Fluff

Joshua Porter defines it as the "one more feature" fallacy: if we just add this ONE feature, then the entire product is now way better than the status quo. This is almost certainly not true and if it is, you made poor roadmap prioritization decisions.

The Essence

10x thinking: a solution so drastically powerful that it shakes up a market or creates a new one. Google ranking search results based on links being a proxy for the popularity of a webpage, Amazon bringing the big box store to the Internet with infinite shelf space, CRISPR gene editing technology to make programming life as convenient as programming computers, etc

Make something people want

That’s it, folks. If you can truly, objectively improve people's lives in an area that they consider important to themselves, you have a real innovation. It never ceases to amaze me how often we over-complicate the simple idea that a business exists to fulfill a customer's need. If you don’t know your customers or can’t fulfill their needs in a way that is much better than their current solution, you don’t have a business (yet). By all means, keep going until you do; the world thanks you for it!