Every business leader I encounter defines innovation differently. To some, it must be clearly disruptive, something that never existed before. Some see it as any deliberate product or process upgrade -- more like an evolution. Others think of it as the result of a certain company culture.
To me, innovation is any instance in which creativity, inventiveness, and initiative result in an outcome that's materially better than before. At SkyBell, the smarthome company I co-founded in 2013, I was an early pioneer in the smarthome and Internet of Things revolution. Along the way, we helped create a new product category (the video doorbell), and I invented a number of patented software innovations currently being used in our space. In total, I'm responsible for, or helped contribute to, more than 30 SkyBell patents. To date, SkyBell has over 100 patents in the portfolio.
For six years, I've had a front-row seat to the innovation in our industry, whether invented by me, SkyBell, or our peers. The only truth about innovation I learned is that it's elusive.
While we may have different definitions as to what innovation is, those close to it would likely agree that it's misunderstood. To better clarify what innovation is -- and isn't -- here are five myths about innovation that can actually hinder your progress.
1. Innovation is the product team's job.
Sit in on an innovation discussion at a major corporation, and you're likely to hear this one within minutes. But no matter how bright the company's product designers, engineers, and developers are, the truth is that the vision must come from above. "Many organizations fail before they begin by failing to lead innovation from the C-level," explains Jake Carter, vice president and partner at management and technology consultancy Credera.
At the C-level, innovation should not be the role solely of the CIO (chief innovation officer). The CEO and other leaders must be empowered to dream up a future that does not exist. In some cases, the best ideas can come from leaders who have some distance from the daily focus on product design and engineering.
In our case, I was able to invent a number of important technologies even though I was the chief revenue officer, without any engineering experience or expertise. Utilizing big-picture vision, I saw large market trends and anticipated where consumer demand and technology would converge. In some instances, I was three years ahead of the market.
2. Innovations sell themselves.
This lesson is a hard pill for many entrepreneurs to swallow, and it's the hallmark of a naive or narcissistic leader. This myth is as simple as it is dangerous: "If you build it, they will come." That's simply not true, even if the innovation is a better solution than what's on the market.
Customers don't know about your amazing product unless you tell them or someone else does. That means you must invest in building a brand and marketing your product to the world. It also means you must create a product that meets customers' needs -- and does so reliably -- for customers to share their great experience.
And then there's the massively important element of execution. Executing on both the marketing side and the operations side isn't easy. Resting on your laurels, and believing that if your idea is good enough, customers will flock to it, is naive. Execution is what separates unicorns from rhinos, and bad operations will kill even the best idea.
3. Customers will tell you how to innovate.
On its face, this innovation myth makes sense: Successful products and services map to customers' needs. When a product or service isn't measuring up, customers aren't afraid to say that. The trouble is that customers are far better at voicing discontent than they are at imagining a different future.
Henry Ford's supposed defense of his automobile business still applies: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." In our case, existing companies weren't looking at the doorbell as a tool for home security. They were looking at improving existing solutions. Instead, we pioneered a new category.
Use customer feedback to spot areas in need of improvement, but don't expect to survey your way to innovation. Instead, look ahead to how technologies and consumer preferences are converging. Consider the problems and opportunities that will exist years into the future. Then, invent new solutions and ask your customers to try them out.
4. Innovation requires flashy technologies.
Walk into an innovation lab at a Fortune 500 company, and you'll hear 3-D printers humming and developers' fingers flying. But ask the editors of the MIT Technology Review about world-changing innovations, and they'll point you to some decidedly low-tech places. Simply adding salt, sugar, and zinc to water given to children with diarrhea has "perhaps saved more lives at lower cost than any other [innovation]," they point out.
Rather than worry about what the answer might look like, focus on the problem. Or put differently, stop creating solutions that don't have a problem. Challenge yourself to summarize what you want to solve in a single sentence. Then, consider the easiest, cheapest ways you might do so. If they involve tech, great -- but realize that to reach the market, innovations must be profitable.
Simple, basic solutions often meet that criterion better than more complex, tech-based ones. If you need more evidence of this dynamic, read about Juicero.
5. Innovation means shooting for the moon.
Yes, "moonshot" innovations -- radical solutions that represent a leap forward from the status quo -- happen. Humans made it to the moon. Apple created the iPhone. Google perfected the search engine.
With that said, aiming for the moon isn't the only, nor the best, way to innovate. Roy-André Tollefsen, head of research and development at Visma, Europe's largest software company, suggests the smarter approach is what he calls "roofshots." Unlike never-been-tried moonshots, roofshots are ambitious but achievable projects that take an iterative approach. Although Tollefson isn't entirely against moonshots, he recommends spending no more than 20 percent of an innovation budget on them.
A final word.
Innovation is never easy, but it's far harder if you believe these myths. Invest the time and energy to study innovation and learn how great ideas happen. What you believe may turn out not to be true at all.