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The most common misconception about innovation

As many professionals in my field, I get this question a lot: « What is the most common misconception about innovation? » The short answer is that most of the time, innovation is discussed and operated as a single thing. It’s not. It’s a complex blend of diverse forms of « innovations » that obey different rules, different mindsets and requires different tools.

The long(er) answer is:

Innovation is how you bridge the reality gap between what can be done in the market, and what can’t be done yet. This reality gap can be framed around two main questions:

  1. Why is the technology not ready yet to deliver the performance needed?
  2. Why is the market not ready to embrace this usage yet?

And, very often the reality gap is built around a mix of « technology is not ready » and « market doesn’t want ». But not all the time.

Curing cancer is a technology gap not bridged yet, while the market is already more than ready to accept a solution. Curing pollution in cities is quite the opposite: the technology is largely sufficient today, but for complex reasons, the market itself largely opposes such transition.

The nature of the reality gap between now and the future market defines the kind of innovation process you are in.

If technology is the gap, then your innovation process is pretty much only about invention (creating a technology that doesn’t exist yet). If the gap is predominantly about usage then your innovation process is about societal or business model innovation.

So yes, this is innovation:

McDonald in-store online order screen
McDonald in-store online order screen

And, if you are in playing on both gaps, you might be aiming at a form of rupture innovation, or disruption (and this doesn’t happen as often as books and media would like you to believe).

In the end invention (tech innovation) is difficult but culturally well understood. And at least since WWII, most countries have built adequate networks, clusters, agencies and groups to deal with it.

Usage, social or business model innovation is not more difficult, but less understood and supported. If there is no patent, is there real innovation? This question remains even after two decades of companies such as Google, Facebook or Amazon, bringing marginal tech innovation but vast social changes in the markets. Very few countries are still actively supporting this form of innovation (again: where is the patent?).

And lastly the kind of innovation that effectively combines both dimensions is rare. We could say that the level of complexity involved is to the square of the other ones (not maths, just an image obviously).

Reducing innovation to only three types is maybe a stretch. But it should already convince you that different mindsets — if not cultures — are required. As such, dealing with innovation by using a single set of tools, or a unique process, is in my experience the most constant problem entertained by governments, corporations, startups or worse… consultants.

Investors on average? They don’t make this mistake. They adapt to a specific innovation field and don’t dwell with forms of innovation they don’t fully understand.

Published by

Philippe Méda

Philippe has been training about 200 startups a year since 2007, consulted for dozens of multinationals on rupture innovation or corporate incubation. He also teaches innovation in key MBA programs in Paris and Shanghai.