Before we use the ‘innovation’ label, let’s remember the man who coined the term

GHO Sydney’s Hamish Stewart remembers Clayton Christensen, scholar of disruptive innovation, and considers what he would think of our current obsession with the term.

I was sorry to read of the death of Clayton Christensen last month. If the name isn’t familiar, many of the concepts he wrote about will be. His first and most famous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, from 1997, showed how incumbents get disrupted by new entrants with ‘good enough’ products. Cut to Apple introducing the iPhone a few years later, and sales of digital cameras plummeting: disruptive innovation, right there.

Since then the words ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ have become buzzwords of the highest order. Uber buzzwords, if you like – in business and marketing, at least. However, I can’t help but feel that in the rush for organisations to claim the innovation mantle, many of Christensen’s original points have been lost.

I’m always interested to read The Australian Financial Review’s ranking of Most Innovative Companies each year. While there are some interesting projects developed by companies on the list, in truth many of them died a year or so after being featured, their URLs a graveyard.

Is this a problem? It really depends on your goals. To help determine what kind of innovation you’re after, I think it’s helpful to separate it into two types: what I’d call creatively-led and customer-led. And Christensen advocated strongly for the latter.

Creatively-led innovation works much like any other creative project or campaign. Client and agency agree on the strategy, the brief is given to a creative team, and they work hard to develop something interesting. The outcome, ideally, is something worth launching and putting some marketing dollars behind. But the timespan is short: a few months at most. The project launches, a case study is made, PR is gained, awards are won, everyone celebrates, and the world moves on.

Customer-led innovation, on the other hand, is quite a different kettle of fish (that’s a voice-activated, internet-enabled kettle, of course). This kind of innovation starts with the customer and advances incrementally to increasingly address their needs. Christensen, and others like Tony Ulwick, are particularly focused on the customer’s ‘job-to-be-done’, and helping them get it done as elegantly and efficiently as possible.

This is the kind of innovation that most agencies aren’t well suited to and have little interest in. For starters, most creative departments don’t want customers anywhere near their ideas. Years of torturous focus groups have trained them to be very, very suspicious of customers – often justifiably.

This kind of innovation is also viewed by agencies as ‘too functional’ – not creative enough, at least to impress peers and win awards. It’s just not what they’re primarily rewarded for.

But customer-led innovation, in my view, is where the real value is. It’s what puts the ‘customer’ in customer experience and the ‘user’ in user experience. There’s still a role for creativity, but the ideas are in service of addressing a real customer need and in building and improving on that over time.

Now that Christensen has gone, customer-led innovation is a part of his legacy that we should never lose sight of.

Hamish Stewart is GHO Sydney’s experience strategy director


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