Like Fake News, Fake Innovation Is Rampant.

Have you ever been a victim of Fake Innovation? Like fake news, sometimes it is so cleverly concealed that it can be challenging to spot. Can you locate the fake innovation of the six innovation types outlined below?

  1. Develop real new products, some of which may make tons of money
  2. File patents for products you might build or license
  3. Look cool among your competitors.
  4. Playing with cool new toys but not launching them.
  5. Playing catch-up to your competitors.
  6. Motivating your employees

Let’s look at each of these in detail:

Innovation Type 1: Developing New Products

If you expect to develop new products, the metrics are easy on this one, track the number of ideas that make it through the pipeline from concept to actual product. If this is your goal, then you need to invest the time, money, and resources to make sure that these ideas get through the pipeline to an actual product or at least a prototype that you can throw into the marketplace (even a small, limited marketplace) and see what happens. Please don’t spend all of your budget on the program itself; save some of it for product development, marketing, and trial management.

In some cases, your operational voices will try to come in at this point and shut down prototypes and trials with no immediate perceived value proposition. If the founders of Twitter or Snapchat had done that, there would be no Twitter ($17B valuations) or Snapchat ($16B valuations). Ensure that you can spend the money to get the damn thing out the door and let it ride for a while.

The founders of WhatsApp were thinking of shutting it down a few months before it went viral. Remember, Facebook bought it for $22B. Would you let your operational voices (some people call these the corporate innovation immune system) shut down what could be a $22B product, all for the sake of a few bucks? We are shooting for the moon here – we should be allowed to spend a few dollars to get there.

In my experience, many enterprises let their operational voices shut down their innovative voices, expecting something for nothing. Unless the product is an immediate viral success with tons of traction and revenue, we should shut it down immediately. I’ve seen too many excellent products go that way, only to be launched by a startup a few months later to great traction and potential revenues. Don’t be that innovation program: be ready for the operational voices to throw up a solid case to shut you down early, sounding the hue and cry that “you don’t make any money.” Don’t let them stop you before you’ve even started.

Innovation Type 2: Filing Patents

This one is a little easier and a little harder. A little easier because you don’t need to think about actually building the product, a little harder because you need to make sure that you are developing something that a) is patentable and b) you will be able to extract value out of some time at least four years from now. There is a cost involved, and your legal team will also need to have the capabilities to manage outside counsel, who will probably do most of the filing for you.

You can easily track this one as well: how many patents did you file? Some companies get into competition with their competitors on this one. Of course, it’s more important to have quality patents as well. Still, with patents, you typically never really know which idea will be precious when you are filing it – so some patents are a useful metric.

This is a tough one for some companies who don’t think long-term. It will take about 4-5 years for your patent to be issued, and once it’s issued, you can then license it or sell it. The cost to file a patent is typically in the $15k range unless your company has filed many patents already. They can get something like a volume discount; paying $15k per idea for something that “might” show some value five years from now (5 years is like a bazillion in tech years, no?) is sometimes even a harder nut to swallow for some companies than the product goal above.

Then there are the patentability criteria: novelty, usefulness, and non-obviousness, and I’ll add one more which I like to look for as well, which is visibility. I’ll go into these in more detail in a future blog post. Still, in short, the idea has to be new (no one else has really thought of this specific idea), useful (it has to do something which people will generally think is useful – this is why you can’t really patent a painting, even though they may help calm your soul) and non-obvious (if your invention is something which is just an obvious extension of something someone else thought of – like using handlebars in your car instead of the steering wheel). I also like it to be visible – the idea is something that can be seen out there – for example, you may be able to patent an algorithm for a better search engine. Still, if I can’t figure out if someone is infringing on your idea because I can’t tell, then the patent’s value is typically not very high.

However, if you are enough of a long-term thinker to wait it out – this is a good strategy. Ensure that you also have a reward program for your inventors at filing AND at issuance so that they get rewarded at both ends – it might even be an incentive for them to stay with you.

Innovation Type 3: Look Cool to Your Competitors

I’ve personally experienced something that feels like this: you have put together a very well-thought-out program with seemingly the right people, processes, and tools in place. You market the program, run the program, and get great ideas out of the program, but then the ideas seem to languish in the system without going anywhere. At the same time, you have many of the organization executives talking about how innovative they are, talk about some of the initiatives, like this one, talk about the high numbers of ideas generated and the number of employees engaged.

There isn’t even any real talk of any of the products generated; you seem to hear the word innovation, innovative, and innovator over and over again in the marketing materials, but nothing to back it up.

Where are the innovative products and services? What is this cool stuff that you are developing?

Of course, since the program’s point is to look cool, it seems like you are just trying to out-innovate each other by blasting the word “innovation” from every loudspeaker that you can.

Talk the talk, but no walking the walk.

Listen, I’m all for touting every innovative product that you’ve developed from the rooftops. But first, let it be REAL. If you are worried about the IP – protect it via patent filing first.

Stop saying that you are being innovative and BE INNOVATIVE. You don’t hear Google SAYING that they are innovative. You hear Apple saying it, though.

So, by all means, innovate so that you can look cool in comparison to your competitors: it has many, many intangible benefits (and maybe a few you can measure)

  • People will see your company in a new light.
  • It may become easier to hire more innovative individuals, thus generating more innovative products and services.
  • Many innovators prefer “doing cool stuff” instead of “big salaries,” so you might even see some relief there.
  • Analysts might see you in a new light if you are a public company. If you are a large public company that may be seen as a has-been, overtaken by more modern, cooler companies with more exciting products, maybe building some fresh, new products and getting them out the door might go a long way towards revising their opinion of you. Innovation can even save you. Yahoo!, please take note.
  • You will get more favorable press – everyone loves innovation. For example, check out the latest video Amazon posted about drone delivery. They teased us with that back in 2013, but nothing came of it. Now we see full-on video demonstrations of a real drone supposedly delivering a new pair of shoes. This you can measure by reviewing your press mentions and “innovation.”

Innovation Type 4: Playing with Cool New Toys, But Not Launching Them

It’s Christmas morning. You are 6. You could barely sleep thinking about all of the presents which might be under the tree. Is it that new BB gun you always wanted? Will Santa be good to you this year? Does your dad have a lamp-sized present under the tree which looks like a crate labeled “fragilé”? Your mind races with the thought of all the cool new toys that might be under the tree. You’re under the covers, wide awake, waiting with anxious anticipation for the moment your Mom calls upstairs, “Wow! Look at all the presents Santa brought!”. You fling off the covers and tear downstairs, only to be greeted with the most fantastic sight of your young life, the Christmas tree surrounded by what seems like hundreds of presents!

You hope none of them are clothes.

Who doesn’t love playing with cool new toys?

Playing with cool new toys, if you ask me, is one of the best parts of running an innovation program. It’s a remarkable side effect of working on the latest and greatest stuff. In fact, one of the main reasons I moved to Silicon Valley from the cold Great White North was not just to get away from the snow and ice in the winter and the blazing heat and humidity in the summer but it was to work with or play with all of the coolest new toys – and help invent those cool new toys.

Playing with cool new toys/products/services is cool. Inventing them is even cooler! But is the primary goal of your innovation program? Sure, it’s an excellent side benefit and definitely a major draw for those innovators who love to work with fresh, new toys (as I mentioned above, I know plenty of people are more in the business to build new things, to make a dent in the universe, as opposed to getting a big chunk of cash in the IPO –that helps too of course.

Inventing the future is cool – inventing solely so that you can be the first to play with them but not turn them into anything really not so cool.

Think of it this way: you are a typical employee in a typical enterprise. You have an excellent idea for a new product; you submit it into the program, it gets accepted and built, and it is being used internally to show off how cool your company is. How do you think that makes you feel?

In my experience, inventors would forgo almost any kind of reward in return for one thing: to be able to point to their product, in the real world, a living, breathing thing which people are using, and say to themselves, their families, their children, their friends, three little words:

“I made that”

Could you help them to say that? Launch those cool new things into the world.

Innovation Type 5: Playing Catch-up with Your Competitors

Alas, people and corporations can be similar in some ways. Just like you can come across people with low self-esteem, there are corporations with low self-esteem out there as well. Some of the companies I’ve worked with in the past – not to be named, of course, feel that they are so far behind on the innovation front that there is no way that they can catch up with their competitors. They look at where their competitors are about them: they may have much cooler, more modern products with a more current look and feel. Their competitors may have way more patent applications in the queue and issued patents that they filed years ago, so it would be tough for them to file anything new in that space. Or they might look at their user base and realize that they are losing traction to competitors who maybe have much more uptake by up-and-coming demographics, like Millennials.

They feel that they are so far behind that there is no way that they can catch up. They think that if they can at least have a product set that can match their competitors, they may have a fighting chance to at least get some market share back. But if you ask me, they’ve thrown in the towel before they have even stepped into the ring.

Are you familiar by any chance with M-Pesa?

When do I say Africa – what comes to mind? Starving children? Ethnic, religious, and tribal strife? Terrible living conditions – rampant disease? Or do you think – “some of the most innovative products in the world?”

It’s the latter.

Some years ago, most of Africa was the former. Poor telecommunications, poor infrastructure, an impoverished populace, ethnic and religious wars. Sure, there are still some areas like that. But, in many ways, they’ve leapfrogged us in the first world by being able to apply new technologies without the baggage that we have. They took a green field and planted it with new mobile products and services. If you visited Nairobi, you might see a metropolis even more advanced than San Francisco or New York, with the inhabitants sporting cutting-edge mobile phone technologies and products and services so forward-thinking they’ve never flown in heavily regulated environments like the United States.

The Kenyans get it: they can innovate not just because they need to but more effectively since they have fewer constraints on what they can and cannot do. We impose limitations upon ourselves when we say “we can’t” or “don’t go there.”

Did you know that the whole cable TV business was born from theft? When I first went to work for a Canadian cable TV company (which was eventually bought by Shaw Communications), they ran a little educational session about the cable TV industry’s beginnings. Apparently, way back when TV signals were transmitted over the air, you needed a pretty good antenna to capture the signal. Excellent antennas were not that cheap, so people were stuck watching things with poor reception. Fuzzy screens abounded.

Some enterprising individuals bought their antennas and were getting a pretty good signal. So they thought, hmm. I’m getting a pretty good signal. What if I ran a cable to my neighbor’s house with the signal in it? I wonder if they would pay for a share of my signal? Well, he did, and his other neighbors did, and pretty soon, the cable business was born: I grabbed signal out of the air via my big bad-ass antenna, then sold it to my neighbors.

The thing is, it wasn’t exactly legal: the operators were taking someone else’s broadcast and selling it – with nothing going back to the broadcaster. They were stealing signals and reselling them, but it wasn’t formally enforced back then. By the time the government wanted to enforce it, the cable companies had gotten so big and made so much money that they could quickly start to pay the broadcaster’s fees for distributing their content.

My point? Don’t merely think that innovation can get you to parity with your competitors – innovation can help you fully leapfrog over your competitors into entirely new markets where you can leave them in the dust.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing still prevail today. If you can’t compete in their box, make your own. And when you do, don’t be afraid to push boundaries. You may eventually be as successful as Comcast.

Innovation Type 6: Motivating Your Employees

Let’s look at the life of Jane Employee; why don’t we? Jane wakes up at 4:30 am every morning. Jane makes a cup of coffee at 4:45 am. She leaves for boot camp at 5:15 am. She does a Cross-Fit style boot camp from 5:30 am to 6:15 am. She goes home, showers, gets dressed, drives to the train station, get on the train, and starts reading a trashy novel on her Kindle for the hour-long commute. She gets off the train, then takes the streetcar to the office. She gets to the office, pours herself another cup of coffee, and sits at her desk for 8-10 hours. She is so busy that she can barely ever step away for lunch, and her job is tedious to a fault.

However, like all of your employees, she has a super quick mind and continuously comes up with better ways to do things, better features and functions for your current products, and even new products that you could sell. But she works in accounting, and when she attempted to approach her boss to tell her about some of her ideas, she told her to drop them because they were just in accounting, and no one on the product side of the business cared about what people in accounting thought.

Replicate that with every other department other than the product side, and you have a lot of unhappy, unmotivated employees, all with great ideas. The same goes for if you have one of those high-falutin’ “innovation labs,” you know, those rare places with special people who only spend time coming up with new ideas – no one else innovates, or typically the C-suite “thinks” that no one else can innovate, when in reality everyone innovates, all the time.

Running an enterprise-wide crowdsourced innovation program is a great way to motivate your employees – in addition to developing great new products and services, as long as the program is appropriately designed, established, and run, with all of the communications channels running smoothly, it can be one of the most effective motivational programs your company has ever run.

When else can you ask your employees to help you design and define your company’s future? When else can your CEO connect directly with your entire organization and get feedback and ideas from every corner of the company? In what other way can you entice your employees to participate positively and, with the proper communication in place, involve your employees deeply and compellingly?

No other way that I can think of. It’s a positive message that may help present your upper management as more human and vulnerable, reaching out to say, “we need your help.” What is a better way to tie your employee’s future into your corporate future by letting them participate in the future product development process?

So, motivating your employees is a fantastic secondary effect of designing and developing a robust, effective crowdsourced innovation program.

So there you have it:

Real Innovation

  • Developing real new products and services or features to make your current products more compelling
  • Filing patents for products you might build or license
  • Motivating your employees

Fake Innovation:

  • Looking cool among your competitors
  • Playing with cool new toys but not launching them.
  • Playing catch-up to your competitors (when you can leapfrog them instead)

Can you spot the difference in your company?