No Better Mousetraps

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.

4 thoughts on “No Better Mousetraps

  1. Andy,
    The introduction of RFID into supply chains might be an interesting prospective case to analyze. It is hung up because the retailer gets the benefit but the manufacturer will probably end up paying for it. No one to my knowledge has looked at this in the network sense to see how new value could be created.

  2. […] John Helferich brought up a great example–or challenge–in thinking about an innovation as a network (see his comment): RFID. Walmart made a heap of announcements about how their suppliers needed to begin using RFID, but almost immediately there was push back: the cost to Walmart for the tags and readers–relative to its revenues–was nothing compared to the costs to individual suppliers.  RIght now it’s a great technology and there are lots of hardware, software, and systems providers out there pushing their products. But the real solution will break through when someone figures out a design that benefits not just the Walmarts of the world but also the CPGs, distributors, smaller retail shops, and who knows who else (maybe the end users?). RFID looks still like a fragmented network in which all the gains have been designed to go to just a few of the nodes. […]

  3. One of the challenges that industry faces is that product development does not happen in a clean environment. Programs and products often fall victim to too many chefs in the kitchen. Departments are always looking to add on services, bells, and whistles to support their individual department goals. This inevitably adds on time and cost producing a behemoth of a product that soon collapses under its own weight.
    ABH– Jim March, Michael Cohen, and Johan Olsen developed something called “The Garbage Can Theory” of organizational decision-making. Basically, it represents organizational decision-making as a garbage can in which problems, solutions, participant, and choice opportunities are swirling about. The organization “is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work.” Sounds a lot like product development. Sometimes the choice opportunities (funded projects) are so few and far between that all the participants, the solutions awaiting problems, and even the kitchen sink, jump on like it’s the last train leaving town.

  4. […] I’ve spoken about the fallacy of better mousetraps before (mousetraps), but to recap–the numbers just don’t pan out. Of the 4400 mousetraps patented in the last 170 years or so, only a few dozen have made any money, and only 2 dominant designs are on the market (the snap trap and sticky trap). The world does not, it turns out, beat a path to anyone’s door for a better mousetrap. Nor will it for a better energy technology: solar, nuclear, hydro, geo, biomass…these were and are all good technologies. But that’s not enough. Technological revolutions don’t happen overnight. to take hold, they require relatively slow and incremental changes in the behavior of individuals and markets. Edison’s light bulb (arriving as it did 40 years after the first incandencent bulb) still preceded the true age of electricity (in the homes and factories) by another 40 years. […]

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