Familiarity breeds innovation

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but familiarity breeds innovation (See my recent post for the difference).  I was fortunate to have that thought quoted in a recent Fast Company interview about inspiring innovation with radical trust, but I think it deserves even more detailed attention.

I’m not sure why this concept is so hard to grasp for business people. So I looked it up and found that the Latin root of familiarity is intimacy.  Ah ha!  After a quick search on that term, it’s clear that most people associate intimacy with sex.  Which made me think of the famous Annie Leibovitz photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  She’s a living legend for pushing our comfort zones with her art.

John & Yoko Rolling Stone cover by Annie Leibovitz

So I think we should get back to the real definition of intimacy and get more comfortable with how it is so essential to innovation.  For the record:

Familiarity: close acquaintance or knowledge (Latin: familiāritās  intimacy.)

Here’s what I mean by familiarity:

1. Love your customer. Think about when you have a crush on someone. You can’t stop thinking about her and you want to know EVERYTHING about her. To innovate in business, you must obsess over your customer’s behavior and pay close attention to what they do (and don’t do) in their lives surrounding your product or service. If you don’t create intimacy with them, you end up playing “whack a mole” with your new ideas, missing most of the time because you are just guessing.

2. Engage in healthy debate: I like the word debate because it implies that you know both (all) sides of an issue and are fluent with them. Fluent enough to play with them versus trying to win over or kill the other ideas. This level of familiarity is critical to “higher order” breakthroughs because playful interaction with multiple perspectives leads to unexpected connections and the blending of ideas into new concepts.

3. Work with you best friends. Years ago the Gallup Organization found significance in the statement, “I have a best friend at work” in their research on employee engagement. Innovation powerhouse David Kelley is famous for starting IDEO as a place where he could work with his friends.  In the Fast Company article, Greg Ferenstein underscores this point by saying, “You don’t BS friends. And they don’t blow smoke and rainbows when you share with them your crazy ideas.”  Friendship is the embodiment of trust, and trust is foundational for innovation (which is loaded with risk).

For many people in the working world, the ideas of intimacy, playfulness and friendship are against their very conception of work.  But there is more than sufficient evidence linking these types of familiarity with high performance and creative production so things are starting to shift.

The potential for creative greatness in any person is there… but us humans are social beings and fulfilling our potential requires healthy, holistic, intimate relationships.

 

Is that innovation or invention?

While closely related, invention and innovation are distinct concepts. Invention is a technology driven breakthrough, bringing something new to the world, that acts like a doorway for innovation to occur. Innovation is an iterative process of improvement that either sustains or disrupts a consumer market.

Wright brothers first flight at Kittyhawk

A great example of this distinction is the invention of flight allowing for the innovation of air transport into a major industry.  The Wright brothers are largely credited with inventing the airplane, but what they really invented was a steering device, which allowed them to make the first “controlled, powered and sustained, heavier-than-air human flight.”

Among the early innovators of air transport were Donald Douglas, who created the DC-3, a robust aircraft capable of carrying things and people, and Henry Ford who was instrumental in the development of paved runways, passenger terminals, hangars, and radio navigation.  Without these innovations, airplanes were an interesting novelty, but they didn’t fulfill a real customer need (like traveling or shipping packages over long distances).

The Ford Trimotor is an example of innovation

Simply put: Invention is driven by technology and innovation is driven by consumer need.

Another example:

At Hulu we are focused on the consumer experience of video entertainment, and innovation is one of our primary goals as a business.  What drives our forward progress is an obsession over our customer’s needs, and a commitment to delivering better and better services to meet their demands.

Innovation in digital media requires deep expertise in software and communications technologies, and along the way Hulu has been awarded many patents for inventions that push the consumer experience to even higher levels.  But we didn’t invent most of the technology we use, or create most of the content viewed on the service; rather we are assembling existing components in new ways that are transforming the media business for users, advertisers, and  content owners.

Is that innovation or invention?

Many popular web-based services are breaking ground in the way people communicate, connect, and work with each other.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if these things are novel inventions or early stages of innovation that will shift markets or generate new ones.

I wonder if Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are inventions or innovations.  They are all valued with great potential to disrupt and transform, but to me they appear more like inventions in their current forms.  They are very cool, novel ways to interact, but that is by definition, invention.  What consumer markets have they created or disrupted?

I think it’s going to be very exciting to walk through the doorways they have created and see what innovation on the other side will produce!