What Kind of Innovator Are You?

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What Kind of Innovator Are You?

By Jordan K. Speer - 05/03/2016
I’ve been listening to an excellent podcast series recently called Judaism Unbound, which is on one hand about how Judaism may change over time to accommodate the evolving needs of the religion’s members but is at its core about institutions in general, how they form, organize themselves, grow larger, and often reach a point where they are too big or too inflexible and may no longer be serving the needs of all of their constituents. Referenced in the podcast is Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, author of  “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.”

I was listening to the series while working on this issue, and it was quite thought-provoking to view our Innovator Award winners through the lens of disruptive innovation vs. sustaining innovation, one of the ideas laid out by Christensen. Sustaining innovations, as you might guess, tend to add to what’s already in place without rocking the boat too much, while disruptive innovations essentially capsize the boat and then build a new one.  Both can be successful.

In thinking about these concepts I realized that there’s also a spectrum along which these changes occur. For example, sometimes technology provides a complete disruption to a company’s processes even though its physical product may remain the same. Still, that technological innovation may make all the difference. An obvious example in our industry today derives from omnichannel. Your company may have fantastic product, but if your supply chain is not equipped with modern systems to enable you to have a complete view of all inventory and quickly fulfill in all manner of channels, it doesn’t matter. Your customer will go elsewhere — to a start-up disruptor that didn’t have a massive legacy system to overhaul, or a veteran business that saw the writing on the wall and implemented more agile systems.

Disruptive innovations are typically groundbreaking and take your business along a new path. The challenge, however, is that if you are an already existing company, you are likely to have quite a large number of customers who want to continue doing or buying what you have been offering (and/or a large number of employees who want to continue working in the same way). There are people who still want to write checks, listen to record albums and flag down a taxi on the street corner. There also are people who will scream loudly if you try to take away their Excel spreadsheets. It’s difficult to walk down two paths at the same time, i.e. serving your customers and employees as you always have while also creating an entirely new model.

An interesting thing about disruptive innovation is that it often doesn’t seem to have the possibility of succeeding against the status quo either because it doesn’t have the resources to ramp up to the scale of its competitors or because its innovation is very narrow, and will not appeal to as many consumers as the already established firms. The latter may feel secure in knowing that the brazen new start-ups cannot offer all of the bells and whistles of their products or services, but that is just the type of thinking that can lull you into dangerous complacence. Because what that new company offers may be just the exact thing a certain group of people is looking for, and those people don’t care about the other bells and whistles. Eventually, as their needs change, the new company can grow along with them.
Consider Innovator Alchemi Labs. Currently it offers just two sun hats. But those sun hats use space-industry tech to block the sun’s harmful rays. Who knows where the company will go from here?

Beija-Flor is infusing its denim with a technology that improves the appearance of cellulite. That seems niche now, but there may come a time in the not-so-distant future when no one will consider wearing a garment that isn’t also a “wearable,” offering some added benefit beyond style and fit.

MAS Active has transformed its business across products and practices with a focus on sustainability — an increasingly crucial business practice not long ago derided by many as a flash-in-the-pan trend — along the way gaining the trust of customers and consumers alike while also saving money and improving the environment. Talk about a  “sustaining” innovation.

As you formulate your strategies for the coming years, keep writer William Gibson’s well-known words in mind:  “The future is here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”  If you’re not always changing and evolving on some level, then you’re stuck in the past, and that’s not a good place to build a thriving business — or to locate a thriving customer base.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel.
She can be reached at [email protected].

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