How Innovation Happens (And Why It Doesn’t, When It Doesn’t)


Image copyright iQoncept

There are two things that a company should do well: Create products that deliver significant new value to customers, and get those products to the market quickly and conveniently. The former draws on a company’s capacity for innovation, vision, creativity and design. The latter relies on its operational efficiency in channels, sales, marketing communications, engineering excellence (from design to build to test) and overall business agility.

Last year’s ruling against Samsung in its legal battle against Apple has demonstrated that the Korean electronics giant has been more capable in the latter than the former. An article in the New York Times highlights Samsung’s unique ability to move quickly from product concept to production to distribution. Anyone who has followed its mobile phone and tablet launches has probably noticed how short its release cycles are — so much so that most of the products banned by the ruling are no longer being sold.

But even with its wide-ranging portfolio of offerings, Samsung has never generated a game-changing product, even as it has aggressively dominated several consumer product categories — from mobile phones to flatscreen TVs. Whether or not you agree that Apple should be able to patent a rectangle with rounded corners, the indictment on Samsung’s lack of imagination is clear.

Why should this be the case for a company that is the cultural equivalent in Korea of Apple in the U.S.? One possibility could be an aversion to making mistakes, which skews the personal risk calculation involved in putting forward new ideas. Innovation happens in areas where there is no right answer, because no one has even asked the question yet. It requires that Jobsian knack for ignoring what people think they need and giving them what they want before they know they want it. It requires courage and knowing that you’re right.

What’s particularly telling about this picture is not even the obvious relationship between the iPhone and the Samsung products after 2007. It’s that you can see clear echoes of Nokias, Blackberrys and Palm Pres in the models before.

Samsung, like many other companies, has played it safe, and this is the greatest temptation for all companies that have achieved some level of success. It’s easier to tweak existing operational machinery to achieve incremental but predictable improvements. Greater efficiency in development or manufacturing processes, lead acquisition or customer onboarding — these all help the bottom line and provide a sense of forward progress, of results that match the effort put forth. But it’s the “nobody gets fired for buying IBM” kind of activity that minimizes chances of disaster, and also prevents companies from experiencing major breakthroughs.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In my work in the open source software industry, I’ve also seen this sort of focus on incremental, operational benefits. Open source development methodologies can more quickly bring to market software that is more reliable and secure than proprietary alternatives, and we’ve been keen to demonstrate that with measurable results.

But this highly collaborative and open way of writing software can also lead to a lot of new ideas, and we’ve experienced this as well. Because our software is freely downloadable, Liferay’s ecosystem of users, partners and customers grew very large, and some used our products in ways they weren’t designed for. Because our source code is open, people have found new solutions to old problems themselves, instead of waiting for us to fix things. So it turns out that what’s best for operational efficiency and what spurs innovation can be aligned.

Here are a few of the principles we’ve discovered along the way:

  • Architect your product and your ecosystem for innovation. There are a lot of great ideas out there, and sometimes the best thing you can do is give people space to innovate and quietly move out of the way. Create a space for innovation in some area(s) of your product (or organization) where people have complete freedom and independence, but which won’t risk the success or integrity of your most strategic product areas.

    At Liferay, we designed our main product so people can easily build complementary modules that add a lot of value to our platform without adding complexity or maintenance burdens to our engineering team. This model gives people freedom to try new ideas and solve new problems. If they’re successful, our Marketplace rewards their innovation by giving them a place to sell their apps to the Liferay ecosystem.

  • Listen to your customers’ needs, not their feature requests. The truly groundbreaking products are those that address real pain points for real people, so it’s tempting to think that means implementing whatever they ask for. But customers usually make feature requests from the vantage point of an existing product, so they ask for incremental improvements thinking they can’t get anything immensely better than what they have today.

    But if you step back and understand why they want that feature in the context of their work, you will have a greater chance of designing a new solution from the ground up that gives them exactly what they need, in a totally unexpected way.

  • Focus on the total experience. There’s no single feature in Instagram that makes it an extraordinary application. But the overall result is the equivalent of an “Easy Button” for being hip. Sure, the designers probably thought in terms of features (i.e., location mapping, comments, photo-taking, filters), but it’s how they put it all together for the specific purpose of sharing cool photos with friends that made Instagram a runaway success.
  • Identify good ideas quickly. It’s popular to say, “there’s no such thing as a bad idea,” but we’ve all experienced otherwise, and no one has the time and resources to go after all of them. Gustav Mahler quipped, “I don’t let myself get carried away by my own ideas — I abandon 19 out of 20 of them every day.” Learn from the design team at Google and put a priority on having a process to rapidly iterate through different product possibilities, reject the ones that don’t work and refine the ones that do.
  • Think beyond the suburban office park. The long flight from our urban centers is over. Today’s enterprise workers increasingly live and work in dense urban cores. More importantly, they’re conducting business inside and outside the office; they’re getting work done in cafes, at home, on the plane or over lunch. The great technologies of recent years — cloud and mobile — are enabling all this and our products should almost be redesigned from the ground up for this new reality.

Better yet, if you can live and work in an urban center, these experiences will be all the more real to you, and put you in the right context to solve these new challenges.

Finally, remember that innovation is not just about new ideas; it’s about applying the right ideas in new ways for new situations. After all, even Apple has been known to borrow an idea or two.

Bryan Cheung is CEO and co-founder of Liferay, Inc., the leading open source provider of enterprise portal platforms. Drawing on his passion for innovation and open source development philosophies for technology and business, Bryan steers the company’s strategic direction and worldwide business development efforts.

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