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Innovators in Name Only

Innovation has a dark side: innovators who do not increase productivity, provide revenue, or reduce overall costs. What makes these individuals people you want to avoid? They fall into one of the following three categories.

The Ladder Climber

This is the person who has to innovate because that is what management is demanding or rewarding. If innovation is this year’s watchword, then this person will, by heaven, innovate.

The ladder climber will come up with (or steal) a notion, dress it up in flash-powered PowerPoint, support it with the rosiest quotes from a focus group just as a bad movie has fabulous blurbs from negative reviews in its ads, and stare down anyone who disagrees with her. The odds that this person will come up with a genuine innovation are the same as the possibility that a broken watch is showing the right time: it happens twice a day, but it is merely coincidental.

Ladder climbers are a true test of a company’s adherence to accountability. If they get away with their act more than a couple of times, the organization is as much at fault as they are. Unfortunately, these people are usually fleet of foot and have moved to a new job or a new company before their failings catch up with them.

The True Believer

The true believer has an idea that he passionately believes in. In fact, that belief probably goes back a decade or more. This idea is a “market changer,” but every time it has been presented, management has failed to get it. The managers are “idiots” or, worse, “bean counters.” The more open-minded true believer will occasionally fault himself for his failure or inability to communicate this breath-taking concept. Very often true believers actually do have an idea that constitutes a significant improvement. Where they often fail is by not seeing that the net utility is negative.

The innovation takes too much effort to learn or money to acquire relative to the actual gain achieved. The true believers would use the product and be delighted with it, so it must be true that everyone else would happily go through the learning curve to take it up. They are early adopters themselves, and they believe that everyone else should be as well.

I had a product proposal presented to me once that had an enormous wow factor to it—but that wow literally would materialize only once every three years or so. The cost to the user for that innovation would have been about $700 to purchase and maintain the device during that period, and the user would have had to carry the device constantly. The price was too high. The only buyers would be those who were so blinded by the end concept that they ignored the cost of getting there. No successful business can be built around such customers.

Unlike ladder climbers, true believers are worth having around. They do generate new ideas, but they have to have someone around to filter those ideas for them. They see only the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They fail to notice that the rainbow can be reached only by climbing Mt. Everest.


Recyclers take yesterday’s good innovation, change something that is incidental to it, and then call it new. It is a kind of raging “me-to” syndrome that happens all over the place. A book comes out like The Da Vinci Code. It sells umpteen million copies, and within months eerily similar books begin to appear. A television show featuring forensics hits the top of the ratings, and not only does the competition imitate it, but it actually imitates itself by adding additional locales. I personally am looking forward to CSI: Echo, Montana.

But imitation is not innovation. Indeed, it demonstrates an actual lack of innovation. It may extend the life span of a real innovation—just as adding different styles can extend the lifespan of a genuine faucet innovation—but it does not add additional utility to the  concept, and so it dos not change anything fundamental.

Recyclers do have some value. Extending the life of an innovation is of economic value to the company. The danger comes when management confuses imitation with innovation and relies on imitation to continue growth. The person who comes up with CSI: Echo, Montana has extended the franchise for another year or two. The person, however, who creates a new concept for Westerns adds to the TV lineup and has created a new franchise—and new franchises are what innovation is all about. Sometimes less is enough. But the game winners offer something different and something to be aspired to.

You can have a building full of the right people, but you need to have something else as well—you need to have an organization that is designed to innovate and is managed so that it does so.

About the Author(s)

Denis J. Hauptly is vice president of technology strategy for Thomson Global Resources in Zug, Switzerland.  Excerpted from his book Something Really New: Three Simple Steps to Creating Truly Innovative Products.