Innovators as Champions for Big Ideas

Yesterday my electric toothbrush finally decided to die on me. It had served me well, may it rest in peace, and was so old that when I originally purchased it, there were probably only four or five options to choose from. It was so old that I actually recall buying it at a physical store, as at that time, online retail was still in its infancy. I should add–before my dentist has a seizure–that while my device was ancient, I have bought countless replacement brushes since!

But being out of the toothbrush market for so long provided me with an insight into how much the category has changed over the years. In fact, I was a little shell shocked when I tried to buy a replacement (online, of course!). I found the sheer number of choices both staggering and intimidating. Rotary vs. spin vs. sonic vs. ultrasonic or ionic (?). Bluetooth, Mac compatible, brushing modes, apps, sensors, cleaning modes, learning algorithms. Brush shape, size, hardness, pattern, and the list went on. I didn’t count all of the choices, but it had gone from four or five options to perhaps several hundred.

That in turn got me thinking about our role as innovators, and the influence we can exert at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in health, environmental, and social fronts. Is this time of unprecedented change an opportunity to get off of this hamster wheel of incremental innovation, all too often described far too optimistically as “disruptive,” and take the lead in directing our efforts to more meaningful challenges? There are always big ideas out there, but all too often, it’s all too easy to get sucked into working deceptively small ones. I certainly did at times. Delivering big, truly disruptive ideas is a win/win/win for us, for the organizations we work for, and for consumers and the world in general. But how do we influence strategy to achieve that, and how do we avoid getting too close to our work, and advocating for ideas that are too small, because we ourselves cannot see the wood for the trees?

I don’t have to explain that it’s more fun for innovators to work on big, game-changing ideas. And I totally acknowledge that it’s going to be tough over the coming months and years, as budgets will be tight, there will be pressure to cost save, and big, long-term projects will be a hard sell. But the ultimate winners will be those who stick with big ideas, at least with some of their resources. Innovation is ultimately a long game, and if we go too small, the law of diminishing returns means that we not only risk delivering less value to consumers, but also less value to the businesses we innovate for.

But keeping at least some resources focused on big ideas probably means at least some selling of ideas in competitive situations, where I suspect we’ll see a lot of competition for scarce resources from short-term projects focused on margin and bottom line. That’s a key part of an innovation strategy, but how do we become a voice for balance, and keeping our long game alive while we navigate a short-term storm? One of our best weapons is knowledge, and in that spirit, below I’ll share a few ideas.

Cognitive Overload. From a shopper-psychology perspective, this is one of the most common issues we create for ourselves when we put too much focus on small, fast and low-cost initiatives. Too much choice creates cognitive overload. Humans don’t like thinking, and we certainly don’t like having to put disproportionate effort against a purchase decision. Offering some choice is good, but offer too much and we risk people making poor choices, or even walking away from a purchase altogether. Creating a lot of small ideas is an easy trap to fall into as we enter a period of economic challenge, but it looked like we may already be there in oral care. I faced a staggering amount of choice for a task I really don’t want to think about all that much. I couldn’t justify spending a day researching toothbrushes. So instead I very quickly scanned a couple of consumer report, and followed a simple “follow the expert” heuristic. I compounded that by following a rough compromise-effect heuristic and picking from the middle of the price range. That means I probably didn’t get the best option for me, but I probably made a choice that was OK. In reality, I’ll never know, and I’ll never make the side-by-side comparison that would give me the capability to appreciate many of the features now offered in the category. But less choice would probably have resulted in a better choice, and more importantly, a better retail experience.

I’m a serial innovator, and I’ve created my fair share of features for product and services, some more useful than others. But one of the benefits of being at the back end of my career is that I can reflect. That leads me to conclude that I was often overly focused on optimizing too many little things, and more importantly, I wish I’d pushed back on at least a few.

Featuritis. A close cousin of what we sometimes call “Subtraction by Addition” in Behavioral Economics, this is one of the most insidious challenges we face as innovators. As categories mature, the products we design become increasingly good at the core functions they are designed to do. It then becomes tempting to differentiate or create “news” by adding incremental features. Automakers are masters of this approach and every year add features that become selling points for that year’s models. From cup holders to ABS to lane control, most of these do a decent job of being reasonably intuitive, remaining fairly true to, and most important of all, meaningfully enhancing the “automobile experience.” But it is easy to get carried away and start adding features that either add little to to the core experience or good ideas that get in the way because they simply don’t work. And an automobile is a big purchase; most products don’t justify the level of engagement a consumer will invest in a vehicle. The TV remote is one of my favorite examples of this, where the dizzying array of buttons usually adds little to the actual user experience–and often detracts from it by adding unfathomable complexity. Or one of my personal favorites is the “hands free” tap in public washrooms. It’s a brilliant concept, made so much more relevant by the current COVID-19 crisis. But watching people in our Vegas casino washrooms flailing their hands around under taps in a futile attempt to secure a flow of water is often comical. Beyond the comic aspect is also a dark side, as I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen give up and exit the bathroom without washing their hands, only to go directly to a slot machine or restaurant. Sorry, that is “yuk,” but it’s also a very real example of subtract by addition, where the addition of a feature actually reduces core functionality, and it’s one with very serious implication in today’s COVID-19 world.

All of this said, I’d like to apologize to my friends who work in oral care. This is not about you specifically–very far from it. A broken toothbrush may have triggered this “innovation rant,” but it could just have easily been my fridge, my hairdryer, oven, microwave, or phone. Featuritis is a disease that has spread widely across the consumer goods industry. I’m also sure that there are genuine benefits associated with sophisticated features such as Bluetooth oral care applications, if I could just be bothered to engage at that level. And, yes, I am aware that oral care is important and has major implications for our broader health, so the benefits are not necessarily trivial either. 

But whatever category we work in, it’s crucial that we challenge ourselves to not over-design and to seek feedback on how valuable our latest function or option is. And that doesn’t mean focus groups, or dedicated questionnaires, when panelists become almost as artificially engaged in the category as we are. We need to look at real people, in real situations, where people are spending authentic amounts of time using and shopping for products. Back to oral care, most people don’t want to think about brushing their teeth in the morning; it’s a largely invisible step. That invisibility is one of the reasons why compliance is so high, as habits need to be largely invisible to take hold. But add in a need to think, and we risk disrupting those habits.

This is a complex issue.  Innovation is largely a for profit” venture, and so the innovation community is far from autonomous in where we put our efforts. But as our world faces so many challenges, are we as innovators really focusing our combined energy where it needs to be focused? As I mentioned above, this is very much mea culpa, as I’m asking myself this question at least as much as I’m asking anyone else. But can we become a louder voice than we have been for focus on big, more important ideas, while framing this as enlightened self-interest for those we work for? In a world where the financial return of innovations is shrinking, can we channel our inner Elon Musk and become a voice for bigger, more impactful innovations, bigger broader visions, and longer time horizons, and in so doing, create better value for everyone?    

Adapted from an article previously published as “Are We Innovating in the Wrong Places?” on LinkedIn


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Pete Foley




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