Irrelevant Innovation

Irrelevant Innovation

GUEST POST from John Bessant

Why change is not always a good thing….

Forget about the ice truckers who haul their precious cargoes across frozen lakes and tundra in the Arctic Circle. Or those heroes who service remote islands in the Pacific or who fly into inaccessible airstrips in the rainforests. They are doing a tough job, undoubtedly — but we should accept that perhaps the hardest haulage challenge in the world has to be that of getting a seven-year-old back to school after the spring break. Motivating muscles to power little legs school-ward (even if the journey is downhill) and placing a smile of anticipation on her face at the prospect of six hours experiencing the joys of learning is not an easy task.

So in one of my many desperate attempts to put a spring back in her step (if not the broader British climate) was to suggest we invent some crazy new things as we trudged our way. Come up with some ideas for wild inventions, the less practical and the more outlandish, the better.

The exercise worked in terms of smoothing the school journey and distracting a daughter. But it also got me thinking — we spend so much of our time thinking about important innovation but maybe we should spare a thought for what might be called ‘irrelevant innovation’? And explore round the edges of this phenomenon — is it all wacky stuff or are there circumstances where it has more to offer? Is it a matter of framing, are we missing an innovation trick or two by dismissing such ideas too early?

Innovation Typology

So here’s a suggested outline typology, a first shot at mapping the territory — feel free to add your own examples and categories….

1. WTF?!!!

These are the ideas that leap out at you from the screen or jump up from the page with a fistful of questions. Like what were they thinking of, who dreamed this up (and what were they on when they did so), who on earth would want this or maybe just a pure, simple and very large why? For example patenting the cheese flavoured cigarette? Or the musical flame-thrower? Sometimes a closer look might reveal the originator’s tongue firmly wedged in their cheek, these are elaborate jokes and nudges to remind us not to take innovation life too seriously. But all too often they have the stamp of sincerity about them — someone really believes that what the world needs now is their invention. Like, for example, the urban window baby cage, in which (for high rise apartment dwellers) your child can get plenty of fresh air by being suspended outside the window, hundreds of feet off the ground…..

These are easy to spot and throw into the rubbish bin — but maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to apply our BS filters and dismiss them. After all history reminds us that sometimes we need visionaries, those who can see into the future and bring back wild ideas which become part of that future. Apple’s famous ad campaign around ‘Think different’ had Richard Dreyfus turning our collective heads towards ‘the crazy ones….the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers — the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently…..” Which echoes the great playwright George Bernard Shaw’s observation that ‘ all progress depends on unreasonable men…’. Trouble is that the line between crazy and visionary is often vanishingly thin.

Think about Nikoloai Tesla who did a lot more than lend his name to a car brand; without his insights we wouldn’t have much of the electricity generation technology we rely on today, not to mention valuable innovations around radio, lighting, transportation, etc. But we didn’t get earthquake generating machines, thought cameras, supersonic airships, ‘death-beams’ or artificial tidal waves — which may be a good thing. Melissa Schilling in her excellent book of the same name classes people like Tesla as ‘quirky’ and that word captures their character traits well. It’s also worth noting that we tend to label ordinary folk who come up with oddball stuff as variations on crazy — but if the ideas originate from billionaires who’ve built their fortune on innovation we use the more forgiving ‘eccentric’ descriptor….

2. Bouncing back off the wall.

You can almost see the creative moment, late night, fuelled by questionable alcohol or other stimulants, that point where the conversation explodes around a key wild thought. Like ‘let’s convince people that what they really need is a …pet rock!’. Innovations of this kind start life as a crazy idea but somehow along the way they acquire a momentum of their own. A community of users — or perhaps co-conspirators — emerges which brings the thing to life and creates its own use case. Gary Dahl’s madcap thought about pet rocks led to him selling over 10,000 of them every day; at the height of the craze several tons of nearly 2 million of them were being adopted. (You can still buy them today if you’re wanting a low maintenance companion). Or how about changing your eating habits and improving your digestion by using a ‘slow fork’ next time you sit down to a meal? Or pick up a ‘no-phone’, looks like the real thing but actually has zero functionality inside? Or the ‘selfie toaster which produces toast with your image on it?

3. Following the Yellow Brick Road — sometimes innovations build on well-established trajectories but lead us to unexpected and irrelevant places. Packaging offers plenty of examples — it’s become a huge industry and of central importance in food retailing and distribution, to help preserve integrity, freshness and safety. But take a closer look at the contents of your supermarket trolley (or your home delivery order). Do we really need our bananas shrink wrapped and encased in plastic trays? Or whole nuts inside plastic cartons? It took Nature several million years to evolve some useful natural protection — do we really need to update it? Do we need a personal pocket water spray when we could splash ourselves at the sink? Or leaf blowers that serve to create miniature sandstorms?

4. On second thoughts…..

Confession time — in my research on ‘wacky inventions’ I came across several Japanese sites which feature oddball innovations including a miniature umbrella which you could wear as a hat. Who would ever really want something like that and why? Some rapid reframing was in order when my wife not only bought one enthusiastically but then proceeded to deploy it in the garden, demonstrating its considerable advantages over hats (which fall off) or hooded jackets (which lock your arms up like a straitjacket and obscure your vision). This device keeps her dry enough for enough the most delicate gardening tasks — and made me rapidly revise my estimate of it!

Innovations like these might appear unnecessary but sometimes there’s more to them — beauty (or at least value) really is in the eye of the beholder and maybe we need to practise a little reframing? Maybe the ‘floor cleaning onesie’ (a baby outfit which polishes your floors while your offspring are crawling around) isn’t such a bad idea after all?

5. String and sealing wax creations.

Necessity or sometimes frustration is a very fecund mother of invention and this plays out big-time in the world of user innovation. As extensive research has shown users are responsible for a significant amount of product and process innovation. Studies suggest over 20% of new products and an even higher proportion of process innovations originate in the hands of users — because they are actively seeking a solution to a problem which bothers them. Couple this with a tolerance for imperfection — they will experiment with prototypes which work even if they look a bit odd and lack design elegance. So many of those early hacks and minimum viable workarounds might look crazy but could be the start of something which becomes a mainstream innovation. Think of where many new sports (like skateboarding) originate or where childcare innovations (like collapsible buggies or disposable diapers) began and the oddball user is often clearly in view……

6. Seemed like a good idea at the time…

Sometimes (back to trajectories) we can extrapolate trends to create apparently interesting opportunities and then go on to innovate something irrelevant. The wonderful Museum of Failure in Sweden (and online) has plenty of examples including a sizeable number from big companies. Anticipating the time poor commuters across big cities like New York and recognising the nutritional challenges in a diet consisting of snatched snacks the food giant Gerber came up with a line of quality adult foods which could be consumed quickly from a jar. Sort of spooning up adult baby food in grown up flavours like ‘Mediterranean vegetables’ …… Perhaps not surprisingly it didn’t take off.

And despite having proved his innovation skills in the field of home computers where his ZX80 range opened up the mass market for the product in Europe Clive Sinclair’s venture into electromobility — the C5 — became a byword for how not to do innovation. At some point some kind of ‘reality distortion field’ seems to come into play for the innovators — an experience well documented in the excellent history of the Segway personal transportation revolution that never quite happened….

Clive Sinclair C5 Wikipedia

7. Wrong place, wrong time

Timing in innovation as much as in stand-up comedy, is everything. And sometimes the great idea on which many people have worked arrives perfectly formed and well-thought out but at totally the wrong moment. Take the Bristol Brabazon — originally conceived as a breakthrough aeroplane design to exploit the anticipated huge market growth in long-haul international air travel in the post-war period. Based on a design for a giant long-range bomber, which was approved by the Ministry of Aviation for development in 1943 it took shape in consultation with the UK national airline, BOAC. Like many projects it took on a life of its own; the budget rapidly escalated, with the construction of new facilities to accommodate such a large plane and, at one stage, the demolition of an entire village in order to extend the runway at Filton, near Bristol. Many unnecessary features were included — for example, the mock-up contained ‘a most magnificent ladies’ powder room with wooden aluminium-painted mirrors and even receptacles for the various lotions and powders used by the modern young lady’. The prototype took six-and-a half years to build and involved major technical crises with wings and engine design but eventually it flew, and very well. The only problem was that the character of the postwar aircraft market was very different from that envisaged by the technologists and in 1952, after flying less than 1000 miles, the project was abandoned at considerable cost to the taxpayer.

8. Coming too early to the party

Sometimes it’s the other way around, innovations arriving ahead of, rather than behind their time and looking around in embarrassment at the handful of other early bird party guests, trying to interest them. Markets that have yet to materialise or, very often, technologies that have yet to mature. Step forward Apple and the Newton or Google’s Glasses? These are examples where the particular embodiment of the innovation didn’t quite make it and appeared unnecessary or irrelevant — but where the learning acquired through such failure has proved invaluable in terms of shaping future successful direction (s).

9. Blind spots

And of course we should spare a thought for otherwise great ideas which suffer from a lack of insight into the context in which they might find themselves. For example there are plenty of cases where a simple and apparently useful name can turn out to have unfortunate consequences when placed in a different linguistic or cultural zone. Think of French kids growing up happily drinking bottles of a fizzy drink with the unfortunate (in English-speaking contexts) name of ‘Psschitt’ or their Ghanaian counterparts who enjoy a draught of Pee Cola (not so popular with tourists).

Everett Rogers spent his lifetime researching adoption and diffusion of innovations and one of the cardinal lessons he drew out of thousands of studies was the need to think carefully about compatibility — how well does your innovation fit into the context in which you’re planning to place it?

The moral of this story? First, creativity is a powerful motivator, not least when your primary aim is getting recalcitrant children to school. We’re (fortunately) hard-wired for it and our imaginations sometimes lead us to come up with end even try crazy stuff out. (And, as the Darwin awards regularly demonstrate, there is an element of natural selection involved which helps us avoid the really bad ideas!)

But not every wild idea is worthless; one of the early lessons I learned about creativity was the importance of what Tudor Rickards called ‘stepping stones’ — oddball ideas in themselves which serve to take our minds down different pathways and may lead to somewhere useful.

And framing matters — in two directions. First we need to hammer home the compatibility lesson taught us by Everett Rogers — innovations don’t exist in a vacuum and we need to think about compatibility with the context into which we’re placing them.

But second, how far can we adapt the frame we place around an innovation, how far are we willing to stretch our own thinking and behaviour to accommodate it? Think of the science-fiction images of ideas like a smart wristwatch which wakes you, talks to you, enables communication, acts as a map and compass combined — and also tells you the time. Literally incredible, unbelievable — until we all started to buy and wear smart watches….

But perhaps we should also think of those innovations which started out as important, relevant and useful things which offered to make significant positive impact. But which — like DDT and many others — later turned out to have negative consequences. ‘Responsible innovation’ is the term used to describe an approach which involves carefully considering what innovations might do and trying to anticipate their possible unwanted side effects and making sure we have the capacity to shape (and, if necessary, reshape) them for good. In the exploding world of innovation possibilities which AI is bringing this looks like an essential rather than optional approach to take.

You can find my podcast here and my videos here

And if you’d like to learn with me take a look at my online course here

Image credits: Dall-E via Microsoft CoPilot, Wikipedia

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About John Bessant

Originally a chemical engineer, John Bessant has been active in the field of research and consultancy in technology and innovation management for over 40 years. He is Emeritus Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter and also has visiting appointments at the universities of Stavanger, Norway and Erlangen-Nuremburg, Germany. Author of over 30 books and 200 articles, you can find out more here:

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