Better Than New

Sideways Innovation is Abundant – And Unsexy by morepete
June 25, 2007, 11:39 pm
Filed under: Context for Innovation

When people think about innovation, they tend to take a very technology-centered view of the world. If an idea could have been executed 50 years ago, it just isn’t innovative, so far as most of the population is concerned.

Even otherwise rational companies who should just be creating new ways to grow often find themselves caught up in such hype: “This one product will save the company – and its specs are really large numbers!”

But as Jess McMullin notes, a lot of the time, innovation looks much more humble – it can mean taking a good idea from one context and putting it in another one. He calls it Sideways Innovation: Finding a new use for an existing idea in a new market. And he’s worried that not enough companies try it. I disagree. Plenty of people do Sideways Innovation – but it doesn’t sound as sexy as designing something from scratch, so we don’t hear about it as much.

Great examples of this phenomenon are all around us. The pair of Shure headphones in my ears right now are based off of professional in-ear stage monitors. The great Crest SpinBrush in my bathroom was developed using the same technology as the CapToys SpinPop way back in the day. The entire Starbucks empire sprang from the introduction of centuries-old Italian coffee culture to the United States.  I would argue, in fact, that Sideways Innovation is incredibly abundant in the business world, but it doesn’t make for great stories in the press most of the time.

After all, the SpinBrush has been a tremendous success for P&G, as has the Swiffer, another product the company found elsewhere in the world (in this case Japan), but the acquisition, launch and iteration of existing products doesn’t sell magazines or get design consultancies work. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard experienced designers tell me that IDEO came up with the Swiffer. They didn’t. Continuum did. And even then, it was an adaptation of an existing product P&G bought the rights to. The consultancies have done great work extending that product line, but the essential insight began overseas.

But none of this fits the story about innovation that Americans want to hear or that the media wants to tell. Too often, we expect innovation to be about Americans inventing things and being smart. It’s a story that makes a rough economic period tolerable.

What we know down deep is that innovation is a global concern, and what really matters is sustainable growth, not wacky inventions. But until the American public is ready for a serious business story, the press is going to delight us with novelty, even if other methods for creating new ways to grow work better in certain contexts for certain companies.

Image via Spinbrush


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[…] So Pete Mortensen comments that the reason we don’t see more coverage of sideways innovation is that it simply isn’t sexy. […]

Pingback by bplusd » Blog Archive » Sideways Innovation Doesn’t Happen Systematically

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