This past fall, Tim Worstal wrote in the Forbes article, “The iPhone 5s, Proof That Apple Has Given Up On Innovation,” that the iPhone 5s is just another example of Apple “steadily losing its mojo following the death of Steve Jobs.” Worstal echoes the growing speculation that Apple is no longer capable of producing great disruptive inventions e.g., the Mac, and is simply coasting on the momentum of the innovation tidal wave they created rather than navigating new waters.
But it’s difficult—and arguably a waste of time—to prove that a company has stopped innovating. Apple represents the collective nerve it strikes in the business world: fear that once you reach a certain point of success, you will no longer be able to consistently innovate to satisfy user demand while beating your competitors.
Is it possible then to create an environment built to create consistent innovation over time? Three innovation experts at MIT Sloan say yes.
Three Ways Companies Can Win the Innovation Long Game
1) Use competition to breed innovation. Fiona Murray, Associate Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at MIT Sloan, suggests in her research that competition does breed innovation. In the MIT Sloan Management Review article, “Spurring Innovation through Competition,” Murray and her research colleagues, Alan MacCormack and Erika Wagner, suggest that “companies are discovering that many of the very best ideas lie outside their organizations, in an ecosystem of potential innovators who possess wide-ranging skills and knowledge.” Companies presenting innovative products have successfully turned competitions into real product innovations.
2) Follow Your Lead Users to Find Your New Innovation. Eric von Hippel, founder of the Entrepreneurship Program at MIT Sloan, has researched user-based innovation for over a decade. In von Hippel’s published research, User Generated Brands and Their Contribution to the Diffuser of Innovations, von Hippel proves that companies are “becoming increasingly aware—and taking advantage of—user’s innovation potential.” Because the user is now constructing and developing innovations, these innovations are manufactured cheaply. Companies save time and money that could be wasted in expensive and unsuccessful R&D and work. Then, company manufacturers are able to observe which user innovations succeed and how they want to improve them via product engineering and commercializing.
3) Design a Systematic Process of Innovation to Create Long-term Opportunities. While some may think true innovation is a burst of creativity and spontaneity, Steve Eppinger, Professor of Management Science and Engineering Systems at MIT Sloan, has proven that companies that build a systematic process—a step by step plan that can be repeated with each new project—are more successful in the long term. In his innovation@workTM webinar, "Systematic Innovation by Design,” Eppinger says, “By creating a systematic process of innovation, you are creating a process to find the answers.”
The iMac, iPod, and iPhone were not first in their product class; they were better products that users liked more because everything from the design to the technology responded to fit the user’s needs. Those companies that can prioritize the changing needs of their users—while investing in processes that identify problems and discover new ideas—will be the most successful in the long term.
Eric von Hippel, Professor of Management of Innovation and Engineering Systems and founder of the Entrepreneurship Program at MIT Sloan, teaches in Building, Leading, and Sustaining the Innovative Organization, Driving Strategic Innovation: Achieving High Performance Throughout the Value Chain, and the Global Executive Academy at MIT Sloan Executive Education.
Steve Eppinger is Professor of Management Science and Engineering Systems at MIT Sloan and is Faculty Director for the Managing Complex Technical Projects and Systematic Innovation of Products, Processes, and Services programs at MIT Sloan Executive Education.