Innovation: Invention vs. Improvement

April 27th 2014

Innovation is a big buzzword in business today. But what's better for your career? Inventing something new or improving something that already exists?

If you invent something brand new (whether it be a new product for your business or simply a new tool for your team to use), you have a lot of work ahead of you. You have to persuade people that there is a need for your invention. Some people, of course, are easily persuaded. Some people will always be skeptical. The onus is on you to convince people your idea is brilliant.

If you improve something that already exists, you're taking on something that already has an audience. By improving it, you can win praise & accolades and become very popular very quickly. Instead of trying to make people do or buy something they don't want to buy, you're making something people already do or use easier.

To illustrate my point, did Apple invent the MP3 player? No, no they didn't. However, they designed an MP3 player that was supremely functional and blew their competitors out of the water.

At Trek, there's been a big push towards Yammer in place of email. Yammer is a great tool and I'm not sure I could go back to a company that didn't have Yammer or a Yammer-equivalent any more. Here's a great video that explains what is wrong with email and how a tool like Yammer can solve it. However, when first introduced Yammer was a new invention. Encouraging adoption was akin to getting a cat to take its pills. Even last month a manager who was copied in on a Yammer conversation replied (on Yammer) to firmly tell the original poster "I don't use Yammer". However, now that Yammer is more widely used, there's an audience. Small improvements to the tool win much praise among the same audience that were so reluctant to use it in the first place.

In your own career, say you have a choice between inventing a new metric that no-one has ever thought of before, or improving an existing report to make it more actionable. In theory, inventing a new metric should be an easy win. You could save the company thousands of dollars if they just start measuring this one thing and reporting on it. The trouble is, you need to persuade the people who do the work to actually use your new report. It's easy for them to get a new report each day and ignore it. Your great idea goes down the drain. The end-users may even resent you for stepping on their toes or telling them how to do their job. Or they may feel like their gut feel is more reliable than any report you could give them. (And maybe it is.)

Improving an existing report, however. Making it more actionable. Making the key information clearer. That will win praise and accolades from all the people who currently receive the report and hate it. Who don't understand it but are told to look at it by their manager. Even if the original report wasn't built by you, improving it will win far more praise than inventing it in the first place. It's highly visible. You'll be seen as making a difference. And the best part is: improving something that already exists is much easier than inventing something new.

I'm not saying never invent. Some people are natural inventors. Some people are naturally persuasive and can get folks to believe in them no matter how ridiculous the invention initially sounds. Some natural inventors are surrounded by a team who can help make those inventions a critical and commercial success.

However, if you're not a natural inventor, or you are but your ideas fall on deaf ears, don't feel bad. People who have innovative ideas to improve existing processes & products are much more in demand than raw inventors. Let someone else do the invention, then make their invention better. It's the Facebook strategy. The Google strategy. The Microsoft strategy. And it can be your strategy too! All of the reward, none of the risk. And that, ultimately, is what business is all about.

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