Can you innovate too quickly?

By Mark Di Somma

Apple iPad 3 launch eventWhat is the right pace for a brand to transform in an iterative economy? So often we’re told that success will stem from pushing the innovation accelerator flat to the floor. As proof, we hear about those companies that failed to innovate or didn’t respond quickly enough – and were buried. But is that true?

Is innovation just about turnover, or is it more complicated than that? Where should brands take their cues – from their own development programmes, from their competitors, from the media, from their own marketing demands?

Where do you look for prompts when you have new work in the wings?

There’s a theory for this (of course) – diffusion of innovation. It revolves around two key aspects: an adoption process that generates critical mass (a.k.a the bell curve); and Professor Everett Rogers’ five influential factors concerning take-up:

  • Relative advantage – how much better the innovation is than its predecessor
  • Compatibility – how easily the innovation can be assimilated into everyday life
  • Complexity – how easy or difficult the innovation is to adopt
  • Commitment – how easily a person can try the innovation out before they commit to it
  • Visibility – how easily the innovation can be seen, recognised and endorsed by others

I would add three more considerations to his list:

  • Pace – how often are innovations announced, particularly if the product innovation cycle appears to have sped up (this may cause consumers to feel that the innovation has been rushed)
  • Similarity – how similar does this innovation seem to what came before it (and therefore how inclined are people to forsake what they see as minor improvements by ‘skipping’ a generation)
  • Excitement – how much attention has the innovation garnered both for itself and in comparison to other concurrent offerings coming into the launch.

Michael Schrage tackles the issue of how to pace change in an HBR post recently. He provides a great answer: “The issue is less about how fast CEOs are willing to move than how quickly their most reliable customers are prepared to change … Your own rate of change is determined less by the quality or price/performance of your offerings than the measurable readiness of your customers and clients … Their inertia matters more than your momentum.”

“The measurable readiness”. The critical success factor for innovation is not just speed to market, it’s speed with market. Scaled inclination. While consumers may have become very accustomed to witnessing change, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will participate. Observing change doesn’t mean that they will buy the change. Something causes them to switch. But something can just as easily can cause them to question.

And that questioning can occur not just before a purchase but also after it. Take the introduction of the iPad 3. It may have felt good to many at the time – but with the arrival of the iPad 4 so soon afterwards, “measurable readiness” for what the iPad 3 was and what it had contributed came under fire. A Toluna QuickSurveys poll found that 45% of the third generation iPad owners it surveyed were upset with Apple for releasing the fourth generation model just seven months after the former tablet’s release.

OK, the dissatisfaction didn’t affect iPad 4 sales, but it does sound a cautionary note I think to brands looking to “rush” the market. Innovators need to be very careful in their pacing of releases not to be seen to be leading consumers on or for that matter to be seen to be deliberately holding back.

I summarise it this way.

The 10 reactions to innovation:
People will buy something wondrous.
They’ll examine something that’s markedly better than what they have.
They’ll consider an improvement.
They’ll hesitate over an adjustment.
They’ll dismiss a lack of progress.
They’ll reject a mistake.
They’ll vilify a disappointment.
And if you fail to renew fast enough, they’ll look for a copy (at a better price).
But they’ll also forgive.
And they may even choose to forget.

Acknowledgements

Image of “Apple iPad 3 Event” taken by Blake Patterson (blakespot), sourced from Flickr

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