I recently had the pleasure of meeting Scott MacFarland, a Digital Marketer and Brand Strategist, sitting in the media lounge during FLIBS. Scott is a regular contributor to the Huff Post and, the following week, while researching an article on 'Unnovation', he sent me a question which got me thinking. Here's how it went:
How does the concept and reality of "unnovation" impact your business?
Before answering, I spent some time reading a couple of recent blogs to check my understanding of what 'unnovation' means to others. Interestingly, the two blogs I read each have a different focus. The discussion started by Umair Haque on the Harvard Business Review Blog centers on the idea of profit in distinguishing 'innovation' from 'unnovation'. He says, ‘A new process, product, service, business design, or strategy can only be described as an innovation if it results in (or is the result of) authentic, durable economic gains.’
That's not my personal understanding of innovation, so I was pleased to find Olaf Swantee's discussion posted on LinkedIn. This focuses more on the creative aspects of innovation, towards new thinking and new ideas. He says ‘If unnovation ever made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, I believe the description would be something along the lines of "unnovation (noun) ... the refusal to identify, create, embrace or adopt new ideas, leading to the unnecessary and un-timely end to a business, which is ultimately overtaken by external progress." This made more sense to me as I regard innovation as inherently creative, leading to the creation of something new.
Our business is online media, and we had to innovate to create a niche in a very crowded market. Our business model allows us to continue to evolve and innovate, partly because of the way our website is designed, but mostly because the creative context is right. When I started this business, I had the freedom and mental space to imagine 'what if?’. The practicalities and profitability must follow, but it started with that idea.
Conceptually, I would argue that profit alone does not qualify an idea as innovative, any more than a lack of profit means an idea is unnovative. Is art or invention only innovative if someone buys it?
In practice, unnovation describes more of the same, but it can also be the opposite of innovation just by being plain stupid. It’s difficult to think outside the box, and it’s easy to think you are doing something new when you are not. The line between the two can also be narrow, just as the best innovations are often those that seem most obvious once they exist.
In my experience, this is because there is usually a rightness about the timing of an idea; a feeling that you’re swimming with the tide. Common themes start to emerge in conversations, and when a number of people are saying the same thing in different ways, what you have is a wish, which creates a vision, followed by the practical (and financial) challenges of making it happen.
Over the course of my career I have had some spectacular failures, each of which taught me more than any success at that point! Mostly I had the right idea at the wrong time, or the wrong idea at the right time, but rarely the right idea at the right time, until now. Our business is a one-stop website for the yachting industry worldwide, a vibrant and rapidly expanding project with a team of eight. There is a continued shift towards use of digital media in this sector, and there are some clever sites on the market, making full use of online technology and social media.
At the same time, what surprises me is the extent to which unnovation abounds within our particular niche. Endless re-branding is often a case in point, where nothing beyond an image has actually changed. To some extent this created an opportunity for us, but other aspects of the same unnovation present a challenge. The worst example is plagiarism of terminology, even in the absence of the functionalities that these terms describe. Specifically ‘interactivity’ and ‘portal’ describe two key and distinguishing features of our website, and are not generic terms applicable to other titles simply because they are online.
Swantee is bang on the button when he says, ‘The simple truth for businesses in the 21st century is that connectivity, mobility and accessibility is going to change everything.’ So no wonder there is a war of words in an attempt to claim leadership in this race. As I said, there is a rightness about the timing of viable innovation, and no one wants to be left behind. Building complex systems takes time, and it’s easier and quicker to change a strap line in the meantime. However, this is copying, not innovating.
But is it unnovation? According to Swantee, ‘Innovation today demands more substance, and less hype. A bigger SUV with even worse mileage or a razor with yet another blade are only innovative if wearing my socks inside out is too.’ I have to agree.
See Scott MaFarland's recent article in Huff Post