Joel Vincent

Technology. Wine. Family. (maybe not in that order)

Repetitive iteration is killing to Innovation

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I have two real passions that I’ve spent the last few years trying to combine – technology and wine.  This post is about technology.  My technology passion goes back a long long way (in my life) to Commodore Vic20 to working in a computer software store all through High School to going to MIT for an Electrical Engineering degree.  I just love to learn about it and having grown into my skin as somewhat of a geek I feel fine diving in and ripping things apart just to figure out how it works at its most basic level.

Anyway, one thing I’ve seen, particularly in the latest “craze” of social media, is the utter lack on innovation.  There is a repetitive iteration (yes, that was on purpose) to sites and technology I see coming out all over tech but particularly in social media websites.  People, particularly in wine, are confused as to which site to use, why?  Because that are pretty much the same thing.  Slight variations, but for the most part the same.

And yet, many of these sites call their releases “innovation”.  Blech!  Come on.  Innovation is disruptive to the status quo.  In my mind, disruptive makes things interesting.  I’ve gotten involved in a few projects that I found interesting (i.e. I thought could be disruptive) and have tried to counsel these companies on how to highlight their innovations.  I’m not going to blather on about them in this post, this is more of a post to highlight what is and isn’t innovation which is pretty simple – if you’ve created something with some defensible intellectual property then you’ve likely got an innovation.  That means a NEW WAY of doing things.  Not a re-swizzle of old technology.

Unfortunately, far too often folks in Marketing (I guess my current field, technically) walk around touting innovation and what this does is create a high noise floor for real innovation.  One very innovative company that I worked with, Cruvee, went through some intensive messaging sessions with me and are going through some re-designs to reinforce that messaging.  But why did they have to do that and why did they have to call me and ask for my help?  Because the sheer number of “social media” sites that lack innovation in the tiny tiny area of “Wine” made it actually challenging to highlight what they do differently, and believe me, they are taking a very different approach and actually introducing some new concepts.  But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

I think this is in part due to a diluted engineering discipline called “agile development“, which I’ve written about before.  I say “diluted” because the interpretation of the interpretation of the interpretation of the original discipline has made people think that pumping out any old crap and then adding features will eventually allow you to hit the one thing that people need (or somehow early adopters will just start using it for what they need).  That is a horrible assumption.  That is called “luck” and its no replacement for hard, smart, innovative work.  If you know the story of YouTube you might disagree with me.  If so, then “good luck”, you’re gonna need it.

If you agree with me then what’s the cure?  Easy, proper Product Management – think about what you’re doing, the audience you’re attracting, what their actual problem is, and have a directed effort.  What a Product Management discpline is all about is INCREASING YOUR CHANCES OF SUCCESS.  You can count on luck, or you can do the work.  I guess it depends on how much time you have and how long you can go without a salary.

On the plus side, investors that I know just ask me “who’s got something innovative?” or “what do you think of this company?” and I can keep being employed to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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7 Comments»

  Anonymous wrote @

Damn you for hitting the nail on the head!

I see the same trend, but was unable to articulate what smelled wrong about it. You come out with a few short paragraphs and make it obvious!

  Anonymous wrote @

Some great points here. I am glad you singled out Cruvee as an exception. I agree it is hard for any hint of real innovation to rise above the noise and be noticed, and they seem like one of those cases. A good idea and solid execution is not enough any more, which is a shame.

  Anonymous wrote @

Joel, I was with you until you started to blame Agile development for the lack of innovation. I’ve been on both sides of the fence; writing 60 page PRDs and cranking out products via SCRUM. You can still innovate with Agile or SCRUM, just like you can produce boring crap writing long ‘thought through from every angle’ PRDs. If you want to innovate using SCRUM or Agile, you just need a visionary product manager who can see not only see the forest through the trees, but can compartmentalize the project phases in to tangible sprints for the engineers (its not their job to innovate). I think the main reason for the lack of innovation is that it’s just too easy to copy other successful products. It’s risky to take a step into the unknown. While it’s a sure thing to take an existing product and modify to fit your business goals.

  Anonymous wrote @

@Ryan – Couple points – 1. I am not advocating 60 page PRDs. I AM advocating PMgt and the good ones are visionary – so there is agreement there. I have been working this industry for 15 years and the best companies find a balance between prioritization and free-flowing innovation. Typically doing the job of framing the problem and allowing the engineering creativity to come up with the solution (this often leads to innovative solutions as long as its not too restrictive). More often then not when this happens you see a product become more successful in the market even when you know one of the competitive products is “better engineered”. You’ll often hear people say “that company just out marketed the other”…yes, but they also framed the problem they were solving to make the purpose and objective of their product very clear to the people they wanted to sell to so it didn’t have to be over-engineered, just well designed enough to meet real needs.

2. I was blaming a “bastardized” version of Agile. Agile development as it was meant to be is an interesting concept and works in some cases. But when its taken and “radicalized” then you get people trying to crank out code and continually update without the original problem framed. Get this happening over and over again and you end up with a river of undifferentiated products/companies when if they had only put some effort in working within some framework of product management they would put all that effort into solving something that had a much higher chance of success (less “see what will stick”) because the framework is meant to direct the effort toward a real problem.

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