Saying No to Innovation – Are You Brave Enough?

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“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” - Steve Jobs

I had just returned from maternity leave only to find that my team was trying to make my baby look like everyone else’s.  What?  No!  Not the baby I had at home, my startup baby, the product I had worked to refine, to create something unique to us.  “Blue!” the engineers said, “everyone loves the blue.  It looks fresher, more modern”.  Yes, but it no longer looked like us … it looked like our competitors.

My team thought by adding more bells and whistles or vibrant colors we could make our product more appealing.  Because we were starting to lose out to the new guy in our market (or at least it appeared that way; we didn’t have any data just FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt), and their product was very blue. 

But by adding more we were detracting from our core value proposition, and our customers were losing sight of why they would buy from us in the first place.  Our product did an excellent job of solving a key problem for them, one that no competitor could match, but our additions were making it harder for customers fully gain from that value.

Focusing on Your Innovation Sweet Spot

One of the things that Steve Jobs did when he started at Apple was take their product line from 350 products to 10.  He made a conscious decision to focus on making 10 excellent solutions and ditch the other 340 products that didn’t do such a great job of solving customer’s problems.  Because having those lesser products out there was distracting; they subtracted from his brand rather than adding to it.

There is a myth that innovation is all about generating ideas.  The ROI of their innovation efforts is often measured by the number of ideas that are generated.  And while capturing and using the good ideas of your team is great for your business on so many fronts, focusing on the right ideas is often the hardest part of innovation.  Leaders don’t put any intentional effort in figuring out what ideas to say no to, what to drop from their product offering, believing that it is bad business to leave any money on the table.

Innovation is all about finding your sweet spot and focusing all your efforts on that clear, winning value proposition that cannot be matched by competitors.  Your innovation sweet spot is the intersection between customer desirability, operational feasibility and business viability. 

Looking at the innovation hall of shame, here is how these companies missed their sweet spot:

  • Desirability - in 1985, Coke introduced the New Coke, a soft drink that tasted more like Pepsi. But their customers bought Coca-Cola because they liked the taste of Coke, not Pepsi. In 1957, Ford launched the Edsel, intending to take their customers up market to a more luxurious car. But their customers were looking for smaller, more economic vehicles.
  • Feasibility - in 1995, Microsoft introduced the Bob, a friendlier interface for PCs. But it could only run on high end PCs; the mid and lower range systems did not have the horsepower for Bob to perform well. Beyond the tech space, there have been many failed innovations in food where companies strayed to areas where they did not have operational strength. Ever heard of watermelon Oreos? Yogurt from Cosmopolitan magazine? ‘Nuff said.
  • Viability - In 2007, a startup launched Joost, a peer-to-peer TV network. The product had a clunky software architecture which might have been ok if it had the content their customers were looking for, but they failed to include acquisition of content as part of their business model. In 2009, Barnes and Noble launched the Nook which because they had the content should have been a home run. But they did not build on the strength of their library and relationships with publishers to extend their brand and instead the Nook just looked like a poor substitute to the Kindle.

All companies who want to grow need to explore new innovative ideas.  Any of these failures could have been avoided long before they hit the market, before the significant investment went into commercializing these products.  And that is the point – don’t quit exploring new ideas but do have a framework that allows you to weed out the ones that won’t work for your customers or with your brand.  Ancillary, do invest in innovation that improves your current products because saying No to innovation does not mean saying No to improving the value you deliver to your customers.