One thing I have learned in the last few years of traveling the country, talking to people in companies about their innovation process, is that there is no shortage of good ideas. The problem lies instead in their collective ability to know a good idea when they see one and execute on it.
When it comes to innovation, it seems, many people are obsessed with the idea of building the better mousetrap. This usually translates to the single, free-standing, IP-protected and revenue-generating product or service that will enable them to hit their promised growth targets for the coming year(s). Managers use this ideal when they search for blockbuster ideas and they use it again to evaluate any ideas that they have. And why not? We all remember Emerson’s famous line: “build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”
What few know, however, is that this advice is wrong. Jack Hope wrote a great article (“A better mousetrap,” American Heritage, October, 1996) exploring the quote, and the facts, surrounding mousetraps and inventions. Emerson’s advice, it turns out, is wrong because since the US patent and trademark office opened in 1828 it has issued over 4,400 new mousetrap patents. Out of some 400 new patent applications each year, it awards out roughly 40 new ones. And yet only two dozen have made any money and only two designs have ever dominated the market. The most common mousetrap design is the snap trap, which was patented in 1897. The second is the glue trap, which hit the market in the 1970’s (Incidentally, the second reason this advice is wrong is that Emerson never said it. He said, “If you sell better wood, better grain, …” Nothing about innovation. A journalist rewrote those relatively unremarkable lines 7 years after his death, and that’s when they took off). As the numbers show, better mousetraps apparently don’t amount to much.
And yet, despite this history, managers dream of developing better mousetraps–the innovations that will take the world by storm. Innovations to which the world will beat a path. How big a problem is this? I would postulate three major mousetrap traps:
Mousetrap #1: Believing an innovation will, if good enough, create its own market.
In fact, the more revolutionary a new product or process, the more unlikely it will take the world by storm. Consider the Segway personal transporter. It cost over $100M to develop. It was built from scratch and its “inventor,” Dean Kamen, promised it would do to the automobile what the automobile did to the horse and buggy. It was designed, in other words, to be a better mousetrap. Kamen and his crack team of engineers labored magnificently in their laboratories to develop the Segway (first code named “It” and the “Ginger”) but to what end? When this glorious piece of engineering was released to the public amid great fanfare, there was no effective distribution, no complementary products or services, no dedicated sales force. It wasn’t even clear that cities would allow their use on sidewalks. Kamen had promised sales in the hundreds of thousands of units. After two years, a software glitch forced them to recall all of the Segways in use…all 6,000. The world, once again, was not in the path-beating mood. But at least the Segway team got their product out the door.
Mousetrap #2: Requiring that any single innovation support the growth projections for the next year.
Here the folly of rewarding for A while hoping for B shows itself. If the only projects that will get funded are those that promise overnight benefits, then companies will find themselves quickly pursuing a portfolio of projects that are either (a) based on necessarily unrealistic projections or (b) underwhelming imitations of existing the company’s existing brands and products. The Apple Newton is a great example of the former…CEO Sculley had pitched it as the next revolution in computing. In the first year, it sold around 60-80,000 units, not bad for a brand new product and category, but nothing like millions promised. And as examples of the latter, just consider what passes for innovation in the retail sector: the same brands dressed up with new colors or new flavors. This trap is much more insidious than the first because it is based on the belief that there is a new idea out there somewhere that can take the world by storm. As I and others have argued before, the ideas that tend to take the world by storm are not new ones, but rather old ones put together in just the right way. And yet the fact that an idea has already been tried, either internally or by the competition, is often seen as proof that it’s not a better mousetrap.
Mousetrap #3: Insisting that any innovation is perfect before it gets out the door.
The more “perfect” an innovation is before it’s released into the wild, the more likely that it will fail. In part, this is because the development team, with its intimate familiarity with the underlying possibilities, doesn’t want to compromise and as a result overshoots the market completely (the Newton team fell for this one as well, and probably the Segway team too). And this is because Pareto was a product designer too: the time and money it takes to perfect the remaining 20% probably comes out to about 80% (as they say, great is the enemy of good). And finally, perhaps most importantly, this is because the more a team of developers commits to making something perfect, the less able they are to respond quickly when the market reacts in unexpected ways. In psychology, its called escalation of commitment: the more effort you put into a project, the more likely you are to remain committed despite overwhelming evidence that you’re on the wrong course. In innovation, the sooner you can release a product (and the less sure you are that it’s perfect), the more likely you’ll be able to learn from customers what you got right and what you missed, and come out with rev 2.0.
So what can be done about these traps? That’s the million dollar question.