Business Innovation: Is there anything really new under the sun?

Business Innovation, along with creativity are two subjects I’m passionate about. My work as a consultant is framed in business innovation, specifically with the subjects of Internet and technology innovations. Innovation has many definitions and I have adopted one where something brings an advantage to a particular organization, but this doesn’t have to be a new thing to the world.

Under the previous definition, every day we see the creation of big innovations. As consumers and external agents to an organizations is easy to identify innovative organizations and products. However, it’s quite difficult to encounter an innovation that is 100% new to the world. Almost every single innovation is based upon changes made to previous products, services or processes that already existed. That is why I have stated in the past that is rare to find an innovation that is new (100% new) under the sun.

Let’s analyze an example, with Apple’s iPod MP3 music player. The first launch of this product came in 2001 and together with other elements, like the iTunes store, changed the music industry forever. I believe that the iPod was a big and revolutionary innovation when it was launched.

If we analyze the case of the iPod, we’ll find that is was a major innovation but not a 100% new product. A few years before, several companies launched their own versions of MP3 music players, which perform in a similar way to the iPod. The difference was that Apple created a product with a better design, easier to use and it was easier to transfer files from the computer of the user. We can say that the iPod was a better copy of a product that already existed and that the true innovators where the first MP3 players. But once again, we can say that those earlier MP3 players were upgraded versions of existing products, mainly Walkmans and Discmans, originally developed by Sony (but with many other brands who had their own versions).

Based on the previous conclusion, we might say that the real innovator was Sony. At this point we will see that the Walkman was an evolution of existing desktop sound equipment. Both cassettes and headphones existed at the time; the change was that the sound was portable. So that means the innovator were those sound equipments. And digging even further, we have to go back to the past, to the creation of the first sound, which probably came with the Big Bang. So the first innovator was the Big Bang, with the first sound ever created!

With innovation, companies have an advantage on certain elements for a limited period of time. That is the reason why companies are recommended to innovate permanently as part of their strategy and culture. This is the only way to keep an advantage over time. And that is why so many companies protect their innovations and inventions with patents (those things that can have patents), industrial secrets, confidentiality agreements and more. But as I showed in the previous example, there isn’t anything absolutely new under the sun. This doesn’t mean we should protect our companies, but be realistic of what and how to do it.

When I started my consulting company over 5 years ago I thought many times about protecting my knowledge, something usual among consultants. However I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t necessary. As a consultant I have a vast amount of knowledge that I share with my clients and that at some point they might use to their advantages, without paying me any fee as the “inventor”. The truth is that this doesn’t matter; my knowledge methods and tools are important, but my real value is myself as a consultant (as I’m the only Andrés Julián Gómez that addresses these topics) and the value of my company.

In fact, if someone one day wants to compete with my company and wants to learn the details of how my company works, I’ll share my knowledge with no problem. I do this because this isn’t the big reason why I’m successful. Also, I try to avoid signing confidentiality agreements with my clients. If my client demands I sign one, I will, but I try to avoid them.

My final message is that you should understand that innovation is a vital element for growth and success, but understanding its reach. New entrepreneurs as well as established businesses try too hard to protect their “new and never seen before” ideas, making a big investment in time that is not always the best decision to use your resources.

Image taken from Flickr.com

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