BOOKS: How to spread the weed

BOOKS: How to spread the weed - Why Innovation Fails; By Carl Franklin; Spiro Press pounds 16.99; MT price pounds 14.99.

by Professor Sir Christopher Evans, chairman of Merlin BiosciencesLimited
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Why Innovation Fails; By Carl Franklin; Spiro Press pounds 16.99; MT price pounds 14.99.

The point of this book is that it's not the brightest ideas that succeed but the ones that somehow take root. Christopher Evans savours the arguments.

When asked to read another book on technology, I almost declined for fear that this would be yet another rehashing of the failure of the era or, even worse, an over-critical analysis by an academic of those willing to take chances with new innovation. However, Carl Franklin has taken a novel and entertaining approach that would prove useful to the inventor or entrepreneur starting out, the investor in new technologies, or anyone interested in the history of modern innovation.

This amusing and insightful book teaches through storytelling, providing examples of both historic innovation and popular futuristic prophecies.

Franklin has compiled a list of innovations spanning modern time to explain why and how these new endeavours may fail, and, by learning from past errors, how not to repeat history.

Lessons in history are important. I recall starting out as an innovator and being in many of the scenarios Franklin depicts.

For an entrepreneur, it is extremely important to detach oneself from the project and to think objectively about the product's potential, and to make an accurate assessment of how success should be defined - in terms of profit, sales growth, or just as a mantelpiece ornament.

The author uses the phrase 'so what?' to demonstrate much of the failure associated with start-ups. This simple phrase is applicable to the whole entrepreneurial process. The true test may be that the product is a good idea to the inventor, but so what? Is it a good idea that will be adopted by the consumer?

Franklin elaborates by asking would-be inventors a series of questions regarding their product, to learn whether it is likely to succeed. He makes many statements that should be in every entrepreneur's mind, such as: 'Smart people sometimes make stupid mistakes', 'Just because it's a great idea doesn't mean it will succeed', and 'Emotion, habit, culture and standards are difficult things to change'.

Franklin's detail regarding specific reasons why entrepreneurial endeavours can fail is particularly useful. He states: 'It's important to understand that people are not rational adopters of innovations simply because they are cheaper, better, easier to use, more convenient or even life-saving.

If that was the case we'd all be teleworking from home and shopping online at WebVan; the roads would hum with electric cars and Aids would never have spread.'

True innovation is much more than just a good idea. It's a good idea that will be adopted and utilized across a broad group - or, as Franklin quotes from Bob Metcalfe: 'Invention is a flower, innovation is a weed.'

The book offers ample example of the irrational nature of consumers.

He cites the lack of initial adoption of lemon juice for preventing scurvy among sailors, the huge lag time in adopting modern sanitation in the UK, and the metric system. It is often human nature and the fear of things that are not understood that cause something to fail.

In the end, says Franklin, a successful entrepreneur must understand that cultural stereotype, politics, education, and perception are all important factors in the eventual success or demise of a new product.

The overall message of the book is not that innovation will fail, but that it can fail. So, to stack the cards in his favour, the inventor should be aware of behaviours that can be avoided to better the odds. My favourite quote from the work is : 'It's clear that 'bad thinking' is a major factor in the failure of many innovations, product launches and small businesses ... but the good news is that bad thinking can be avoided by challenging the assumptions you as an innovator have about yourself, your innovation and the people for whom it is intended.'

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