This week I went to a Hacking Health Toronto meetup titled “Life After Hackathon – what happens next?”. This week’s meeting was a follow-up to a Hackathon event they held last fall, where two of the groups from the Hackathon presented the progress of the projects that had grown out of the original event.
I found it all inspiring, though what spoke to me most in the night was the initial keynote presentation by Zayna Khayat a senior advisor in health systems innovation at MaRS and director of the MaRS EXCITE program.
In fact, at the event I tweeted about two points that she made about innovation in her keynote:
Innovation is a new or better way of doing valued things.
Innovation occurs when an idea, project or new invention is adopted by users at scale.
Which gave me food for thought on what is innovation really. It’s become one of those overused business buzzwords such as strategy, team-orientated, and motivated. It’s used so often to describe things that aren’t really innovations that it has somehow lost its true meaning. So I like Zayna’s definitions because they put some real measurements on it.
It’s a good three legged stool to rest the question as to whether something new is an innovation – value, adoption and scalability.
In discussing value, Zayna noted that without the value aspect, doing something new and improved is part of a continuous improvement process. A worthy goal in itself, although not innovation. It adds a depth to the idea of innovation, and gives us a place to begin looking for where we can innovate. What are the things that we value? For business this is often summed up as reducing costs, reaching more customers (increasing revenue), or becoming more profitable (the combined difference). For consumers this can be making a task easier, making a product/service more available, cheaper, or more accessible.
Steve Jobs’ famous introduction of the iPhone walked us through the idea that Apple was introducing a device marrying ipod(apps) + phone + internet communications. During the presentation he comments that Apple’s goal was to make a new device that was easier to use and on which people could do more than the existing smart phones on the market. This was the value statement that was a benefit to consumers – and what actually revolutionized the mobile device market.
It’s easy to point to the iPhone as an example, because it had such an impact. In truth, it was just a next generation improvement on what was an everyday mobile phone device for most business people in the Americas, and all consumers in Europe and Asia. With the value statement added in, the iPhone did catch the other mobile phone providers napping and spurred on adoption. Other innovations that occurred in parallel to help it along were the widening of phone network spectrum to allow for greater speed and bandwidth and that it was built on top of the Apple earlier innovations of app enabled devices.
I liked how Zanya also included the criteria that an innovation is actually not really an innovation without adoption and scalability. Otherwise, it’s a cool new invention but without staying power. Too many new companies focus on the idea, after all that’s where the passion is. Yet the business model is what takes that idea and actually gives it legs.
Customer adoption and profitable scalability are real challenges for emerging companies. This is the hard part. Finding a market for a cool idea is not always easy. It helps, if like Apple, you already have a large customer base to build on for early traction of your innovative releases. It takes hard work and time to nurture and build a strong customer base. It takes listening to your customers and users. Then following and incorporating their feedback. It takes experimenting with new ways to reach the market and be heard in the noise of everything else. It takes creating a customer focused business model.
For me scale means profitable growth, because scale of an unprofitable company just means going out of business sooner. So it’s about growth in revenue, without expanding costs. It’s also about learning to use channels and partners to take advantage of extending your customer base. A company that can scale understands what it takes to deliver to their market, and focuses on how to do it better. It’s about being prepared for opportunities, so that the opportunities don’t overwhelm your business. Recent history includes many a software company that did their all to secure that top customer – then had ever increasing operations costs in trying to deliver the product or service to them. It’s about running your business well.
So that’s it. To be a truly innovative company: provide your customers with value, focus on the customer, and be smart about your business operations. Easy to say, not so easy to deliver on.