ORIGIN: Starting the Conversation

Whose Child is Innovation?

10.10.10 by Brad Thurman
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You’ve heard it thousands of times:

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

True enough.  It makes sense that creation is driven by need.  Humankind’s most basic needs – food, water, shelter – have resulted in some of the most amazing devices and concepts…and some of the most clever, too.

But there’s an issue with true invention: it tends to occur at the fringes.  Many inventions, while potentially life altering, lack broad appeal or a network of early adopters.  They flounder around looking for an audience – sometimes gaining ground, some rapidly, but often are left to the use of a select few.  They’re doomed largely to obscurity…until someone comes along, sees the potential and adapts it.

These people don’t invent.  They reinvent.

Fast Company magazine recently published a great article about Apple and Steve Jobs (http://wallace.sc/c31rIp).  Now, before I go on, it should be noted that I’m a total Apple addict.  Completely.  And that is why the cover, with its giant pic of Steve Jobs and its reference to Apple as “the coolest company anywhere,” caught my eye.  But I digress.

The article made multiple points that resonated with me.  To wit, Point #9: Apple doesn’t invent; it reinvents.  I’ve heard this as both an accolade and a criticism, but you have to think about it.  Apple didn’t make the first computer, the first OS, the first digital music player or the first phone.  But, man, did they reinvent them.  They looked at what people need (not necessarily what they want) and, most importantly, looked at why other products didn’t deliver.  Then they created an experience; not just a product, but a real lifestyle – a brand – that they wrapped around it.

There are similar examples of companies that sell much more than a product.  Starbucks didn’t invent coffee.  Walmart didn’t invent low prices.  Zappos didn’t invent online sales.  But each of these companies took a concept, rethought them, innovated them and developed a unique experience proposition for their customers.

Some argue that innovation is just copying the work of others and is somehow less risky than true invention.  I disagree.  Every day, companies everywhere are looking for ways to improve their offerings and distinguish themselves from their competitors.  Changing a company or a strategy involves risk, such as aliening loyal clients who liked you the way you were or finding that your changes aren’t seen as improvements.  And make no mistake about it – they must truly be improvements to have value.

So, if necessity is the mother of invention, whose child is innovation?

Talk to us.  Is there merit to reinventing or does real glory lie with creating an original idea?  What clever ways are you innovating?  Is great innovation really just good copying?  Does it matter as long as something great comes out of it?  We’d love to know what you think.

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Brad Thurman, PE, FSMPS, CPSM

Principal

As Chief Marketing Officer, Brad directs marketing and business development for Wallace Engineering. He received his Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies and Master of…

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