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Does Necessity Really Drive Innovation?

innovationI’ve heard it said a few times that its necessity that drives innovation – that if you aren’t trying to solve a hairy problem, or your back is against the wall – that is the only space that innovation comes from. The companies will only innovate if they are forced to.

If you ask me, by the time you are forced to innovate in order to stay alive, then it’s probably already too late. You need to get ahead of the curve – to innovate before you need to – in order to map out the future direction of your company and the world that your company will exist in.

One of the things that I did during my time at Yahoo! we called “Targeted IP Generation” – which is a fancy term for “inventing things we can’t build yet” – we would pick a specific area, say social networks, or even a combination of areas, and invent products in that space that we purposely knew couldn’t be built right now. The reason that they couldn’t be built was usually that the systems were currently incapable of building them right now, or the market wasn’t quite ready for it right now, or that there was no clear business model to the invention, but there was something about it that felt right – that you could see that product exist in a near future world. One of the most interesting things we found that most of the things are came up with actually did come to pass, just at the wrong times. I like to say that inventing products is a bit like being a weatherman: sometimes you are right, sometimes you are wrong, but most of the time you’re right, just at the wrong time.

For example, one of the inventions had to do with augmented reality glasses using a transparent overlay, and about 5 years after we filed for a patent on it, products with that similar capability started coming into the marketplace. The technology had finally caught up to the idea. Since we had filed for a patent on the idea, when the technology catches up, that could have become a whole new line of revenue for the company.

Did we need to innovate? No, there was no pressing need (although if you ask me there is always a pressing need to innovate!) at the time, however we knew that there would be a pressing need for new products and business models in the future, so we preemptively invented for that time. Not many companies are that forward thinking. In doing so, however, you can ensure your continued existence. You don’t have to be worried about disruption shutting you down, like those firms did in the Innovator’s Dilemma – you’ll be prepared for the disruption. You will be birthing new businesses and business models to replace the old ones.

So I’d argue, if you wait for necessity to push you to innovate – you’ve already been outdisrupted. The time to get ahead of the curve is now. Tomorrow may already be too late.

— image Thomas Hawk

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