It is true that innovation is a means to an end – not an end in itself. It is also true, however, that innovative ideas inspire us well beyond their functional benefit. In that respect, innovation-ness is like having beautiful writing style – it cannot replace content or meaning, but coupled with them will make the outcome not only more pleasing, but also more impactful.
It is often hard to put our fingers on what makes an idea innovative – but when faced with such an idea we can usually recognize it immediately. To most of us a car that produces electric energy every time you brake (e.g. Toyota hybrid cars) would seem ‘sexier’ and more compelling than a car that is simply 5% more efficient in energy consumption; although from an environmental perspective the latter may be more significant. Similarly, a double wall glass (e.g. Bodum glasses) would strike us as cooler (no pun intended) and as more effective than a single-layer product made of a better insulating glass, even if the latter may keep the liquid colder or warmer for a longer time.
In both examples, the more innovative version is not a gimmick or a trend that may disappear as fast as it appeared. These examples represent real innovations because they combine two fundamental characteristics: they are new, and their newness is beneficial. Arguably, the seemingly less innovative versions in both cases also share these characteristics. The only difference is their perceived novelty versus the original product. To the ‘naked eye’, a 5% more efficient car is very similar to the less efficient version, much as a glass made of a more insulating material is very similar to a glass made of an inferior one. That is not the case with the conspicuously innovative versions. The fact that braking the car creates energy is surprisingly different from what you may find in a “regular” car, much like a double wall glass is clearly different from a single wall glass.
If we follow this line of thought to its natural end, we might conclude that when it comes to innovation, it’s as important to get the job done as it is to do so in a way that is different or surprising. The thing is, however, that in most cases getting the job done is hard enough, even without any additional demands. So how can we expect our search for innovation to take into account the aesthetics of the outcome, on top of its functional merit???
In some cases, and for some companies, this is a non-issue. A company seeking to produce a certain commodity at a lower cost couldn’t care less about the sexiness of their ideas. The functionality of the solution is all that matters and the esthetic aspects of it are of little or no concern. On the other hand, if another company is looking for a new design for a high-end roll-on deodorant, the functional aspects are a necessary condition, but may not be sufficient. Clearly the brand in question would gain a lot if these functional benefits are achieved in a unique, surprising and sexy way.
While this may sound ominous to many products, brands and companies, the truth of the matter is not that grim. The innovative solutions we mentioned are compelling and surprising because they do something counterintuitive – they break some of the fixednesses regarding the product or the category. In Toyota’s hybrid cars the brakes were designed to do something most other brakes do not – produce energy. They do so by breaking a cognitive bias called “Functional Fixedness”. That fixedness is broken by assigning a new function (creating energy) to an element that already exists in the system to carry a different function (the braking system). Bodum glasses look different from other glasses because they break another cognitive bias called “Structural Fixedness”. That fixedness is broken by changing a fundamental design feature of the whole category – the use of a single wall.
Breaking cognitive fixedness can lead to the development of effective solutions – ones that meet the demands of the engineers and R&D folks. When we manage to break our fixedness we are able to explore options that were previously overlooked, and open up to new alternatives that can be extremely powerful. The fact that such solutions may also end up being attractive from a marketing perspective is simply a side effect of this approach, although it would doubtfully be regarded as a negative one.
So it boils down to this:
You can scan the realm of possibilities looking for truly innovative ideas, or simply looking for ideas. If you do the former, there’s a good chance you’ll find the latter, but if you do the latter, you will rarely stumble upon the former.
This should, in no way, dismiss our efforts to develop and implement ideas that are less conspicuously innovative. It only means that by looking for ideas that break our cognitive fixedness we increase our chances of coming up with ideas that are not only innovative, but also perceived as such.