Innovation: are you delaying the inevitable?

Some innovations seem unfair, but hiding behind regulations won't save your business in the long run, argues John Sills.

by John Sills
Last Updated: 30 Oct 2017

My three-year-old son is constantly teaching me things. Things I should know, like the difference between a Triceratops and a Centrosaurus, and things I thought I knew but didn’t, like how good children’s hearing is (even when you think you’re eating chocolate more quietly than you ever have before.)

But I didn’t expect him to teach me about the inevitability of innovation.

For the past few months, he’s been getting to grips with using a knife and fork, and I get stupidly frustrated when he abandons them in favour of his far more practical and dextrous fingers. It was during one of these moments of parental despair that my wife asked a question that put my mind at rest:

‘How many 18 year olds do you know who can’t use a knife and fork?’

She’s right. Of course, she’s right. It’s inevitable, it will happen. The only question is when. And it struck me that this kind of questioning might be a useful approach for more companies to take to innovation.

For many organisations, their reaction to new technology and new ideas is one of defence, resisting change as long as possible. This familiar pattern appears time and time again:

A new and better way to solve an old human problem is created. Innovators experiment, just for fun, without care for business case or regulation. Early adopters start using it, not necessarily legally, challenging the status quo. (This was just as true for Gutenberg’s printing press as it is now for Uber.)

So the existing organisations hit back, putting their defences up and citing rules, regulations, and, usually, job losses. But customers start to use it, start to like it, and start to demand it.  And eventually, incumbents either give up and go home or decide to join in the fun, once enough of their business has been taken to make it financially unavoidable.

History is littered with inevitable innovations, such as mix tapes and Napster leading to playlists and Spotify, part-time banks changing to 24/7 instant money, and high pollution vehicles driving us to all electric pods. And the path is set for the future, too. 

How much longer will train companies use paper tickets? Will hotels need receptionists? Will energy companies estimate? Will voting be non-digital? Will banks hoard your data? Will house-selling need estate agents? Will SIM cards be needed? Will deliveries need signing for?  

Ultimately these are services that push the existing rules, push people out of their comfort zones, and push customers’ expectations up, often finding better ways of delivering what people really want. And like water finding the quickest route down the mountain, these good ideas will eventually find the way to improve the customer experience for everyone, even if they have to go round a few old historic boulders on the way.

Therefore, rather than wasting time and effort trying to argue against or cry foul over new ideas, organisations will be better placed if they answer these three questions about any new innovations on the horizon:

  • In 10 years’ time, will our customers expect it as standard?
  • If yes, then when are we going to do it?
  • To do it by then, what do we need to do now?

Innovation is, of course, the implementation of a creative idea. So really, it’s nothing to do with bean bags, brilliant ideas, or even (gulp) bright post-its. It’s about making decisions, embracing the excitement, and leading your industry to make you customers feel better in the best way you can.

John Sills is a director at The Foundation. If you enjoyed this article you can sign up to his personal blog or find him on Twitter @johnJsills.

Image credit: Matthew G/Flickr


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