Category Archives: Innovation

Enough Traffic Jams Already!: What is true innovation and why it is so rare

These days “innovation” is the name of the game in business circles.  Companies are judged by the ‘Street’ on their capacity to innovate.  Individuals are asked to think outside of the proverbial box.  “Chief Innovation Officers” are taking a seat at the strategy table.

With so much hype about innovation, it is natural to bring up a few questions:Giant-traffic-jam

  • How do we define “innovation”?  What exactly are we talking about?
  • Are there different kinds of innovation and, if yes, are some kinds better than others?
  • With all this emphasis on innovation, why are there so many crappy products, services, and experiences all around us?  Why are we still stuck in traffic?

Let’s take each of these questions and try to figure things out …


Merriam-Webster defines “innovation” as: (1) the introduction of something new and (2) a new idea, method, or device.

This is a pretty low bar!  The “something new” that is being introduced does not even have to be better that the old one, according to this definition.

An alternative perspective on innovation was put forth years ago at a user experience conference I attended (regrettably, I do not remember who suggested the following dichotomy).  According to that perspective there is a key difference between innovation and invention:

  • invention – creating something new; more in line with the Merriam-Webster definition
  • innovation – creating something new which makes a significant positive impact both for people’s lives and for the business bottom line

Let’s look at a few examples  of invention versus innovation per the above definition.


  • The Segway: The self-proclaimed “Leader in personal, green transportation” was hyped to be the most revolutionary thing since sliced bread.  Has it changed people’s lives?  Has it been a huge market success?  It has changed the work lives of mall security personnel and has provided some tourists with a novel way to move around in groups with silly helmets on.  Arguably, it has not been a commercial success.  As to being a “leader” in green personal transportation, I submit that a true innovation – the bicycle – still holds that spot.
  • Siri: Apple’s virtual personal assistant has been marketed as intelligent software which “understands what you say. And knows what you mean.”  It certainly is based on some very impressive technology (invention) and helped sell a whole family of iPhones as a key feature.  History will judge if is it a true innovation.  To me, it is a very clever marketing gimmick and a terrific invention.
  • This is a very cool website some friends and I created.  The main idea was to find any ski resort world-wide (among close to 3000 of them) and pin a photo or video of your run right on the trail where it happened.  Nothing like that existed before (or at least not we were able to find), so it was highly inventive.  However, once the site went live there was little enthusiasm for users to join and use it.  So, it did not become an innovation.


  • Sliced bread: No comment here … 🙂
  • The automobile: Henry Ford famously remarked “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Instead, the automobile was invented and now it is hard to imagine moving around our fast-paced world on horseback, no matter how fast the horse.
  • The intermodal shipping container: This true innovation dramatically sped up and totally transformed the way goods are shipped all over the world.  Before that, the focus was making the freight ships bigger and faster.  You can imagine that this endeavor quickly reached its engineering limits – you can make a ship only so big and so fast (just like a horse).  What shipping owner Malcom McLean and engineer Keith Tantlinger realized was that what needed to be sped up and made more efficient was the loading and unloading process at the shipping docks.  So the intermodal container replaced armies of workers lugging packages back and forth at the seaports, which was the biggest bottleneck of the shipping process.
  • The iPhone: Apple were able to transform the mobile phone into a mobile computer that is the best representation of ubiquitous computing – computing and connectivity that is everywhere.  It has changed our lives to the point where we cannot imagine a world without this computer in out pockets. And it has certainly been a commercial success.
  • The Sonicare toothbrush: To me, this is a great example of some pretty impressive technology which has been commercialized and has completely changed the way people (or at least our family) handle their dental hygiene.  After using it for over 10-12 years now, it feels unnatural to brush my teeth with the regular tooth brush.  I have almost lost muscle memory for it.
  • And so on and so forth …


There are many ways to categorize innovation.  Here I will touch on a couple.

According to the innovation domain:

  • Technical innovation: more in line with invention if it does not result in commercial success)
  • Marketing innovation: clever new ways to sell products; not true innovation in my book
  • Product innovation: the realm of true innovation
  • Process innovation: see the intermodal shipping container example above

According to degree of innovation:

  • Sustaining or evolutionary innovation: incremental innovation on existing products; not super exciting but this is the work that pays the bills and keeps established  companies relevant in the marketplace
  • Breakthrough or revolutionary innovation: this is the type of innovation that ends up on tech blogs and is lauded by the media.  It disrupts markets and obliterates existing complacent brands. It is VERY RARE!

To the question of whether one type of innovation is more important than another, it is hard to say.  I believe companies should be doing both – incremental to stay relevant and keep improving, and breakthrough to try to disrupt either themselves or the competition.

What do the above ramblings have to do with traffic congestion?

We live at a time where people have figured out how to use DNA as a storage medium for all kinds of digital information, including all of Shakespeare’s sonnets!



  • is it because it is such a hard engineering problem?
  • is it because it is a public policy issue and public budget never gets allocated to it?
  • is it because companies cannot make a profit, so no private company wants to invest?
  • is it because it affects only a portion of the population?

What do you think?

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