Lazy Innovation

by | Oct 26, 2008 | Evaluation Ideas, Subtraction, The Wheel | 6 comments

Katie Konrath at tackles a common mistake in innovation – packing new features into existing products as a way to innovate – a problem I call “feature creep.”  Her main point: people pack products to the brim with features to be more innovative.  Many believe this is the only way to innovate.  Katie believes feature packing is a lazy way to innovate.

Why does this happen?  The major culprit is too much reliance and emphasis on the traditional PROBLEM-TO-SOLUTION approach to innovation.  We spot a problem in an existing product, service, or situation, and then we “solution seek” a way to fix it.  We usually end up adding additional features to the existing product, service, or situation. 

Here’s an example.  A friend of mine occasionally needs to push his large, heavy entertainment center away from the wall to make changes to the connections.  He had a clever idea over coffee yesterday: what if you created a space under the wall unit so you could deploy retractable wheels (much like an aircraft lowers and raises its landing gear)?  This solution certainly solve his problem…at higher cost and more complexity. 

This is the traditional view of innovation.  What fuels this view is an over-reliance on voice-of-the-customer as a source of innovation insights.  It is the belief that if we can understand what customers want, we can solve their problems with innovative solutions.  The problem?  Customers don’t always know what they want.

Here is an example.  When my wife picked up her new IPhone, she spent the first twenty minutes pressing all the buttons.  She seemed irritated – she was looking for the Help Function.  I told her the IPhone did not have a Help Function.  In amazement, she said, “Finally…a product that really understands my needs!”  Now imagine if Apple’s market research department had called our house seeking Voice-of-the-Customer data about what it would take to build the most awesome cell phone on the planet.  My wife would have said, “Easy.  It must have the most awesome Help Function on the planet.”  The Point:  Customers only know what they know.

In competitive markets, we face even more pressure to add features to keep up with competition or leap over them.  Worse than feature-creep, I call it “feature wars,” the ongoing battle to win customers with ever more new things added to their product.  The problem is that over-featured products begin to outstrip the true needs of the customer.  They find it too hard to continue using and keeping up with the product.  They find themselves having to take out the user manual or find support groups to answer basic questions.  How many of you reset the time on your VCR or DVD player…without looking up how?

Innovation methods that emphasize the SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM approach avoid feature creep and lead to elegant and more useful innovations.  These methods take an existing starting point (product, service, strategy, organization, person, etc), and manipulate it to create something very odd and seemingly useless.  This “pre-inventive form” is then matched against potential problems that it might solve or benefits that it might unlock.  My belief, based on observation, is that people can match more problems to solutions than they can match solutions to an observed problem.

There is a good type of Lazy Innovation.  George Neil from Adobe Consulting contests that laziness, usually considered a bad behavior, is a virtue that can identify opportunities for innovation in user-experience design.  He believes the “search for laziness” can create short-cuts to finding the opportunities for innovation.  Ethnography uncovers lazy “solutions” people take when doing a task.  The key is to match those solutions to the benefits and problems they address.  Robert Passarella tells a great story about this phenomena in the context of how stock exchanges innovated the way they clear stock trades more efficiently – the story of The Killarney Rose Pub.

Katie Konrath continues to be one of my favorite bloggers in the innovation space because she is the “real deal.”  She is classically trained in creativity and innovation.  She knows HOW to innovate, she takes a customer-centric approach, and she sees the big picture on what organizations need to do to start innovating.  No laziness in Katie.