Just because it’s new, doesn’t mean it’s innovative

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // April 17, 2017 

 The trouble with our current cultural notions of innovation is that we equate “new” with “innovative.”

Attend almost any trade show, read the latest tech-focused magazine, or even just walk the aisles of your local big box retailer, and you will notice there’s a continual stream of “innovative” products. However, if you take just a few minutes to consider what is being offered as innovative, you will quickly notice the term “innovative” has largely been reduced to meaning “new.” Companies realize that consumers are so enamored by the idea of the “new” that they will spin even the slightest change into the realm of innovation.

And it’s not just low-end brands that attempt to make these sorts of marketing stretches. Even the remarkably pioneering Apple Inc. suffered criticism last year when they released a new set of iPhones that were low on technological advances and high on minor aesthetic changes such as gold and rose gold.

It wasn’t always this way. Innovation was once born out of necessity, not out of marketing differentiation. So what happened?

The notion of planned obsolescence

If you are not familiar with the notion of planned obsolescence (which in my experience is actually true for a large percentage of folks outside of product development and marketing), give it a quick Google search and read the history of it. Essentially, the idea of making a product with an artificially limited useful life precipitated the eventual need for continual differentiation in the marketplace. Couple that with a post-World War II standard of living unmatched in human history and you have a recipe for a consumer product arms race. Everything must be newer, better, faster in order to catch a consumer’s attention and hopefully keep it long enough to come out with the next newer, better, faster product.

Notice what is reduced in this concept? The idea of something being “useful” beyond the short term.

Is it useful?

Here’s where our current notion of innovation falls short of being truly innovative. Just changing the color of a product, making it in a variety of sizes, or changing the packaging isn’t innovation. Aesthetic variations, slight functional tweaks, and improved presentation aren’t necessary per se. They may be appreciated by consumers and help products get noticed. They may even help sales. They may help present a veneer of innovation, but people don’t need them.

The mark of true innovation is usefulness. True innovation is born out of necessity and is therefore useful to meet a real need. And true usefulness doesn’t have a short-term expiration date. Solutions that meet real needs last for a while.

Now it must be noted that with the ever-increasing rate of technological development, the standard of something lasting in the long term is changing rapidly. However, the same logic still applies even if the time frame is somewhat condensed. The fundamental questions remain the same. Is there a real need? Is the product useful in meeting that need? Will the product last long enough to provide a reasonable return on my investment in it?

We may feel that we need that new Bluetooth-enabled coffee grinder with its corresponding downloadable app so that it can track my sleep patterns and automatically grind my coffee beans as I awake, but does that meet a real need or merely represent an enhanced convenience?

Real innovation serves the greater good

To be clear, just because something is new doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. There’s just a distinction to be made between a clichéd notion of innovation that’s merely functionally synonymous with “new” and an authentic notion of innovation that means a new way of meeting a real need with a useful solution.

A good litmus test for where something falls in this spectrum is a simple question of whether a product, process, or service serves the greater good. Sometimes that greater good serves all of humanity like innovations in cancer treatment, clean water, or renewable energy. Other times, that greater good is smaller in scale and serves an individual community. But, always, if something truly serves the greater good, it is necessarily useful.

So if you want to foster actual innovation, give substantial consideration to whether what you are creating is useful. And if it’s useful, will it be useful beyond an artificially limited amount time? That’s the true mark of innovation.