Iteration is valid and valuable, but it is not innovation and fostering innovation becomes impossible if the platforms being built to deliver a product, become the product.
Last year I wrote a piece, Do ethics foster innovation, in which I briefly argued that change is often motivated by a want to do good, and this openness to change is fundamental to innovative products and industry disruption.
A major barrier to this change (especially in larger organisations) is that the content of a product over time becomes the product. In that I mean, the systems and processes within the walls of the company, become completely tied to what is outside the walls of the company.
This is an absolutely natural thing in order to grow from a start-up business into a larger established company. Scale and sustainability require the development of systems and process which support growth, the acquiring and maintaining of resources as well as recruiting and developing employees.
However if the context of the company, and the content of the company become the same thing, innovation becomes increasingly difficult to emerge from the inherent resulting rigidity.
In my article on ethics, I used Uber (perhaps ironically) as an example of a company that is staying true to their context, which is transport, not taxis. By focusing on moving people (or things) from one place to another, they have continued to innovate (while still iterating and improving their taxi service platforms).
These platforms however; the apps, the decentralised fleet of drivers; they are NOT the Uber product, but a means to an end in disrupting and innovating in the transport space. One which began with the disruption of taxicabs but not limited to.
Traditional taxi companies, whose product had become the content (a centralised fleet of cars and drivers) within the limited context of road travel watched on helplessly. This was because their context was never, "how do we get people from a to b" and therefore failed to innovate. Their slow iteration focused on upgrading vehicles over time, and the odd poorly executed online scheduling systems. These established taxicab companies remained more and more comfortable in their inherent rigidity, and relied on a lack of alternatives as a means to stay relevant to customers.
You keep using that word...
In the same article, I defined innovation as the cross-section of insight, ingenuity and inspiration; like so;
- Insight: Uncovering a gap in the market by understand an unmet need.
- Imagination: The ability to visualise something that doesn't exist which fills that need.
- Ingenuity: The creativity and skills to make it real.
However, I'll add to that now, in that it must exist in a broader surrounding which is the product context in order to self-disrupt your own industry. This context will anchor insight, imagination and ingenuity, making all the difference between innovation and iteration.
Forgetting context leads those striving to innovate toward initiatives like re-platforming a product, which can often look like innovation. However these types of projects can lead to very different outcomes to that which was desired; such as increased efficiency, instead of increased effectiveness.
Product companies trying to fight industry disruption need to disrupt themselves and it becomes ever so difficult as the platforms of their product, become their product and ultimately; the centre of their company. Systems and processes should serve to maximise the effectiveness of a product or service in the context of why it exists, not become akin to The Moloch Machine in Fritz Lang's Metropolis; churning through employees and ultimately customers.
Self-disruption doesn't have to be nihilistic, but it does need to reset on 'the why' and be willing to disrupt the established norms within a company's walls. In my experience, it doesn't necessarily require a change in personnel, skills or equipment; just mindset.
Acknowledging products and platforms
In another article, Are we designing products or platforms?, I concluded that product designers must work at both altitudes of product development; the context (designing the product itself) and content (designing the platforms that support them).
If any voice in the room is going to keep businesses on the their toes about 'the why' behind any decisions, who better than the product designer. Those often the most nimble when it comes to transitioning between strategy and delivery.
A very simple method I use to keep myself in check on any piece of work is to articulate each of the following as best as possible and re-iterate them at every stage of the process, ad nauseam:
- Link the problem / solution to the company mission; how does solving this or doing this match with the company's reason for being?
- What's its purpose; what will solving the problem or implementing the solution ultimately do?
- What customer needs will it serve; what insight is driving this use of resources?
- What business goals will it help achieve; what are we trying to increase or decrease?
- How will this all be measured; what are the clear and objective reportable metrics.
The first point is critical and all about setting the context back to the, "we are here to help customers get effectively from a to b", rather than allowing things to become heavily focused on, "we are here to make a booking process more efficient".
So, while there is always good reasons to iterate and it is often vital, acknowledging the difference between iteration and innovation is the oft-overlooked and critical first step in achieving the latter.