Complementary Innovation

The LAB: Multiplication (August 2008)
August 31, 2008
Sooner, Better, Bolder
September 14, 2008

Complementary Innovation

Companies are enamored with chasing "white space opportunities." White space is the nickname for new, undiscovered growth segments. It spins the notion that opportunity lies just ahead of us. Telling colleagues you are working on white space opportunities suggests you are doing really important stuff. It is the ultimate growth endeavor, the risk worth taking. White space will save the day. I'm not so sure. I have two problems with white space. It is neither white, nor a space.

Companies are enamored with chasing “white space opportunities.”  White space is the nickname for new, undiscovered growth segments.  It spins the notion that opportunity lies just ahead of us.  Telling colleagues you are working on white space opportunities suggests you are doing really important stuff.  It is the ultimate growth endeavor, the risk worth taking.  White space will save the day.

I’m not so sure.  I have two problems with white space.  It is neither white, nor a space.

White space has come to mean many things:

  • WhiteSpace (Resource Scheduling), name used since 2002 to denote available time for People or Resources when scheduling time
  • White space (visual arts), or negative space, the portions of a page left unmarked
  • Whitespace (computer science), characters used to represent white space in text
  • Whitespace (programming language), an esoteric programming language whose syntax consists only of spaces, tabs and newlines
  • White space (telecommunications), unused radio frequencies in the VHF and UHF bands allocated to television transmission.
  • White space (education), term used since 2007 in the Singapore Education System to denote time reserved for teachers’ personal reflection and planning.
  • White Spaces Coalition, a group of technology companies aiming to deliver broadband Internet access via unused analog television frequencies
  • White Space (business), the part of a market or segment that is available to a business or entity for new sales or customers
  • White Space (Process improvement and management), the area between the boxes in an organizational map, often an area where no one is responsible.

The common theme seems to be the notion of white space as a void, untapped and unused, free and clear – like powdered snow yet to be skied.  If only we could find it (or get the government to give it to us as Google is seeking)!

Where do companies look for white space?  Jim Todhunter at Innovating to Win has published a survey with some very important insights to this.  Most noteworthy is how low respondents rated Complementary Products, a mere 6.3% as a source for white space opportunities.  Jim’s advice:  “Reconsider how to look at the red ocean opportunity spaces to expand your market footprint through complementary offerings.  This could be a great less traveled path to revenue growth.”

I agree with Jim, but what is curious to me is why this path is less traveled in the first place.  My sense is that companies overlook these complementary innovations because they are too focused on new opportunity defined as a market space rather than a boundary or frontier.  White space is not a space at all.  It is the fringe of what your are currently doing.  The term – adjacency – seems to be a much better way to define it.  White space is not white either.  Complementary innovations are deeply colored by what we know and have experienced.  There is always an old idea buried in a new one.  This is why tools such as S.I.T. and Goldfire are so effective at innovating at the fringe of the current business model – they leverage what is known.

Fortune 100 companies will find more growth opportunities at the margin of what they are doing than by chasing far-flung, ethereal market voids.  Leveraging at the margin takes advantage of existing core competencies and strategic assets.  It yields innovations that stretch the portfolio and the brand.

Stop chasing white space and look for the brightly colored complementary innovations right next to you.