“Innovation happens in the gaps.”
It’s a statement so simple yet so profound that as soon as my client said it, I wrote it down.*
It’s not sexy to innovate in the gaps.
Most people and companies believe that innovation must be something entirely new for the world. That innovation is all about filling a white space, thinking blue sky, or swimming in a blue ocean. That innovation must be free of constraints, that it must be pure creation.
Most people will argue that CEOs rarely get on the front page of the Wall Street Journal because their company introduced something better than what exists today. Innovators rarely win design awards for an improved version of an existing solution. Scientists and engineers are rarely celebrated for receiving improvement patents.
Steve Jobs made the front page for the iPod, an MP3 player that offered better storage and user experience than the dozens of MP3 players that existed before it.
Charles and Ray Eames were named “The Most Influential Designer of the 20th Century” by the Industrial Designers Society of America, and they’re best known for designing chairs.
Thomas Edison is hailed as the inventor of the electric lightbulb when, in truth, he significantly improved a decades-old product that was too expensive, too unreliable, and too short-lived to be commercially viable.
It’s necessary (and profitable) to innovate in the gaps.
Gaps exist because of real and perceived constraints. Innovation thrives in constraints because it is the constraints that drive creativity.
In the gap between what is and what is good enough lies a problem that needs a solution. That solution, something new that creates value, is innovation.
In the gap between what is and what is delightful lies an opportunity that wants a better solution. Innovation can deliver that solution.
Find the gaps
Sometimes gaps are obvious, like the cost and performance gap between candles and early light bulbs that contained costly platinum and only lasted a few hours.
Sometimes they’re not, as evidenced by the difference between people who owned MP3 players before the iPod versus after the iPod debuted.
To find the gaps, talk to customers. What do they use now and why? What do they not use and why? What do they wish for and why? What is not good enough and why? What is delightful and why?
To find the gaps, don’t sit in a conference room. You won’t learn anything new by talking to the same people. And don’t obsess about competition. If you do what competitors are doing, you’ll do no better than your competitors.
Talk to your customers. They’ll point out the gaps. Then innovate to fill them.
*I learned later that he had first heard it from Tim Kastelle, an Australian academic and author focused on innovation.