Everybody would like to be a great innovator. But how to innovate is a mystery. What is your unique way to show greatness? Ron Friedman came up with Decoding Greatness in explaining how the best in the world reverse engineer success. In this pursuit, this article looks backward for decoding greatness in innovation and creativity to find repeatable patterns of how to innovate. To show your excellent innovation performance, you do not need to be a genius, or you need not keep experimenting 10,000 times to hit the Eureka moment. Instead, you need a repeatable pattern that works, and you need to add a unique spin to its implementation to show your greatness. As opposed to starting from scratch, add your flair to what is working in showing innovation greatness. Hence, the focus is on decoding greatness and adding your spin for creating a winning formula of innovation success.
Mastering greatness in innovation and creativity is a highly sought-after virtue. Unfortunately, there is no cookbook. The only thing we have is a reference to elite performers like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Thomas Alva Edison, etc. Hence, we need to decode greatness to find the hidden structure—looking beyond what is evident on the surface for revealing details for recreating. Decoding greatness in innovation is like the ability to deduce a recipe upon tasting an intoxicating dish. This is similar to listening to a beautiful song and discerning its chord progression.
A series of decisions shape the works of great innovation performers. Hence, the challenge of decoding greatness in innovation is about revealing decision-making patterns shaped by certain traits and forces. Once we interpret great performers’ underlying code, their decision-making exercises in demonstrating magical innovation performances could be defined, analyzed, and applied to reproduce similar or better performances.
Decoding greatness reveals how to innovate is driven by the passion for finding alternatives and perfecting in getting jobs done better:
One of the typical traits in how to innovate has been finding an alternative to get jobs done better. For example, Edison perfected telegraph techniques in addressing performances such as how many messages could be sent per hour. Similarly, he is known for experimenting 10,000 times for finding suitable means for producing light by electrically heating filament. On the other hand, Elon Musk has been after electric vehicle design for making them better alternatives to gasoline automobiles.
Like those luminaries, companies like ASML or Largan have been after keep improving certain products in helping customers in performing their jobs better through the accumulation of ideas. For example, ASML has been after advancing photolithography machines for increasing chip density and reducing power consumption. On the other hand, Largan has been advancing tiny plastic aspherical lenses for smartphones to produce increasingly higher resolution images. By consistently adding ideas, both of these companies have emerged as superior innovation performers.
Conceiving alternatives around newly invented technology cores:
In many cases, great innovation performances showed up due to the reinvention of existing products. For example, Steve Jobs showed magical performances in the personal computer, portable music player, and smartphone by reinventing existing products through changing the mature technology core. Similarly, Elon Mush has been after the reinvention of automobiles by changing the mature gasoline engine with electric batteries. Like them, Sony was after the reinvention of Radio, TV, and camera. Hence, how to innovate has a reinvention pattern.
In many other cases, innovators showed great performances by changing mature technology cores with emerging ones. But invariably, reinvented alternatives showed up in primitive form. For example, Sony’s Radio and Television around Transistor showed up in the 1960s as an inferior alternative. Similarly, through the replacement of film with electronic image sensors, Sony’s digital camera emerged as a poorer alternative to Kodak’s film camera in the 1980s. Like those, Tesla’s electric vehicle is still inferior to gasoline ones. But, in all those cases of reinvention, innovators succeeded in showing magical performances by keep advancing the respective technology cores—making reinvention a creative destruction force and disruptive innovation.
Decoding greatness reveals a core pattern of how to innovate: profit-making urgency keeps refining for making products better and cheaper
Invariably, great innovation performances have been driven by profit-making incentives. Significant innovations did not show up due to just creativity. Consistently, innovators have been after profiting from their creativity by releasing their ideas in the market, whether as incremental advancements or reinventions. Hence, profit making urgency greatly influence how to innovate.
But, in many cases, their innovations failed to begin the journey of producing profitable revenue. Hence, they went on the journey of fine-tuning and releasing successive better versions, improving performance and decreasing cost. For example, Carl Benz’s automobile emerged as a loss-making three-wheeler. Similarly, Sony’s digital camera also started the journey with loss. Such reality compelled them to keep improving through a flow of ideas, turning the loss into profit.
On the other hand, profit-making opportunity allures competition to respond with the release of replication, imitation, and innovation. For example, the debut of Apple’s iPhones encouraged competitors to respond with similar products like Android-based smartphone designs. Such a response keeps drifting the willingness to pay for initial innovations downward. Hence, innovators are compelled to keep releasing successive better versions. In addition to fending off competition, these better versions also succeed to keep diffusing deeper in the market.
For example, Apple succeeded in selling more or less 1 million copies of the iPhone 1. But due to the release of successive better versions, iPhone’s customer base has been growing, leading to the sale of 100 million units of iPhone 12. Similarly, German Automakers succeeded in selling just 900 cars after 14 years of its invention in 1899. It has grown to over 6 million by 2020. It happened due to the release of successive better versions, creating increasing value from the dollars customers spend buying their cars.
How to innovate demands sourcing technologies, fine-tuning, and integrating:
In almost all cases, great innovation performances did not show up due to the creativity of lone genius. Innovators need various technologies and components to give product shapes to their ideas. In many cases, they need to source technologies from the outside. But sourcing from the outside fails to deliver the expected performances. Hence, they get into their refinements. For example, Sony licensed two great Nobel Prize-winning inventions from Bell Labs: transistor and electronic image sensor. But in the beginning, none of them was suitable to realize the idea of pocket radio or digital cameras. Like Sony, Apple did not find acquired technologies like multi-touch or graphical user interfaces suitable enough. Hence, they get into the mission of refinement and integration into conceived architecture.
Keep releasing successive better versions for sustaining innovation:
Irrespective of the greatness, every innovation suffers the challenge of sustaining in the market. For example, within just one year, the sale of magical iPhones came to zero. This is because of the limited willingness to pay and the competition’s response. To revive the sale, Apple released 3G. As all other versions faced the same fate of declining sales after a certain period, Apple has been releasing successive better versions of the iPhone.
iPhone is not alone. All innovations have been facing the challenge of sustaining their sale in the market. Hence, starting from Toyota to Microsoft, all great innovators have been relentlessly running the idea machine and releasing successive better versions. Hence, the urgency of sustaining innovation in the market has been shaping decisions of how to innovate.
Pursuing system solutions through a family of products:
There is also a pattern among the great innovators is to offer system solutions to a closely related group of jobs to be done. Hence, iPhone supports enjoying music, watching videos, sending e-mails, browsing the internet, and making phone calls. On the one hand, iPhone is growing as a combination of an increasing number of products; on the other hand, Apple’s products, such as the iPad and Apple Watch, have greater synergy to offer a system solution in the digital space. Like Apple, Amazon or Toyota, companies have been showing magical performances after offering system solutions. Therefore, system thinking plays a strong role in how to innovate.
Recreation through self-destruction:
In decoding greatness in innovation and creativity, we found the pattern of recreation through self-destruction. As explained, all significant innovations show up in primitive form. They keep growing due to incremental advancement, creating a snowball or flywheel effect. But the growth slows down due to the maturity of the underlying technology core, forming an S-curve-like lifecycle. Hence, significant innovations go through recreation out of reinvention through the change of technology core. For example, the electric vehicle is a recreation of the automobile through the change of gasoline technology core with electric batteries, motors, and electronics.
Although all significant innovations have been progressing through a period of incremental innovation followed by reinvention and the rise of the new wave as creative destruction, many great innovators fail to make the switch. For example, RCA, Kodak, DEC, and many other great innovative companies could not lead the reinvention or switch to the new waves, resulting in suffering from the Kodak moment.
Great innovators show a systematic pattern in their decision-making, resulting in a magical performance. Hence, our pursuit of decoding greatness in innovation and creativity has revealed interrelated seven traits and forces—forming a reoccurring pattern in decision making. If to be innovators pay attention to those patterns and start practicing, the result could show up as greatness in innovation.
Findings of how to innovate by decoding greatness in innovation:
Our exercise of decoding great examples of innovation indicates that there is a repeatable system that works in how to innovate. To show great performances, innovators need to make their own version by adding unique spins to the pattern which is already working. Instead of merely mimicking, innovators need to advance and evolve by adding unique spins to the 7-dimensional patterns presented in this article. It seems that working backward in decoding the greatness of innovation performances has revealed a pattern to which innovators need to add their tweaks and ideas and keep practicing and evolving to show their superiority.
This is about looking backward in detecting patterns and moving forward by intelligently adding unique tweaks. Hence, how to innovate is not about a sudden creative spark. Decoding greatness in innovation reveals a systematic pattern of how to innovate. To our surprise, such patterns are at the core of Apple’s innovation strategy.
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