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Should Innovation be a Closed or an Open Activity?

All companies innovate. They do, in some way or the other. But only some receive coverage in the media for breaking real ground. Ever wondered, why it happens this way? How are some companies like Google or Apple are able to use words like ‘magic’ to present their products, capture the market ferociously, sometimes even create the market, and garner free publicity all the time? While others with equal or even higher spending on research (not ‘focus’ mind it) fail to ‘innovate’ in the eyes of the world? It just doesn’t click for everyone.

I pondered on this question for sometime, and here is what my thoughts are:

Innovation is a very rigorous term. Like everyone says, it starts with an idea, an idea which is selected from a bunch of several ideas, and then real work i.e. substantial effort and time (and perhaps money) has to go into creating the product out of that idea. For an outsider – i.e. your customer – the estimate of your ‘work’ depends on the outcome i.e. the product. The product must speak for itself, not you. This is a complicated life-cycle with steps like: to develop, to differentiate, to ponder, to develop more, to differentiate more, to ponder more and so on…Until one day, you have a ‘presentable‘ prototype.

‘Presentable’ is the word which emphasizes on look & feel, images, buttons, cuteness, aura, appeal, responsiveness etc. And with that I also mean to say that back-end i.e. your ‘hacker’s skill’ has absolutely no bearing on your company being perceived as an innovative company unless and until the back-end somehow affects the spots of human interaction with your machine. The human interface, that is.

Even if you stick to a ‘rigorous’ schedule of innovation, show up great designs and power-punch packed stuff, there is a significant chance that your product/startup may still not be perceived as an “innovative company” by others. Two reasons – you might be building something off others’ back (e.g. Twapps off APIs of Twitter, Facebook apps, iPhone or Android apps, maps based products etc.) or the idea itself might have been executed by someone else in another refrigerator and you came to be known as just doing something similar to dash, dash and dash.

Now if you have taken care some of the issues discussed above, your startup might get tad closer to be called as an innovative company. But there is still more ingredient to the secret sauce of innovation.

Innovation is also a hazy term. It tends to raise the anxiety of people. They want to know more about you/your product. Creating a ‘magical haziness’ around ones’ work, increases the chances of being checked out by the world. Publicity & sales depend on the magic of haze – the spell. In effect you as a businessman have to hide a little, show a little and keep the end consumer hooked. Almost like a curious child.

So now, like I asked in the title, should innovation be a closed or an open activity in your company?

IMHO, the answer to the question depends on which side of innovation does your want to company focus upon. What is the DNA of your company? Does it believe in hard work/intense engineering type of stuff – like Google – or simply hype/hoopla type like many who started off lately in tech world? Or does your company play really smart with the hazier side of things – aura, kick-ass presentations, magic of innovation, words – i.e hide and seek with the end consumer to make him feel perpetually curious about your product – like Apple?

In both the cases, mark my words, the companies actually balance between both – intense engineering and the purple haze.

What is the better approach for your product startup? To iterate more often, or play openly with curiosity? Let’s look at two examples, in greater detail. I also recommend you, the entrepreneur, to read The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne. The tenet of the book is that focused positive thinking can have life-changing results.

Google is perceived as an open innovation company. The company believes strongly in engineers. Yet some people contend that innovation in Google’s shop isn’t really open. Well, let’s not debate but simply ask, do we really know what Google is trying to build with Circles? No. Do we really know how exactly ‘pagerank’ works? What is the new Panda update? No. Or that Google was working on radically new type of email i.e Gmail when Yahoo, Hotmail, Mailcity ruled the Internet etc.? No. All we know is that Google is working hard on Circles, and their search ranking algorithm is better now and Gmail has great threaded-email technology and things like that.

Observe that this is exactly how we thought Google would play in the market? They use both the properties of innovation:

1. work, differentiate, ponder and repeat and

2. raise curiosity of the end consumers by revealing little and hiding little. Game on!

On the contrary Apple is perceived as a closed innovation company. Now having a walled garden, some contend is a great approach for Apple, but not for the world of Internet business. Well I could hardly make out much of difference between Apple or Google or any other innovative company out there, but surely ‘closed innovation’ term does work wonders for Apple. All the developers in Apple spend time on company’s vision and work relentlessly to build product around it. Some say, Apple has been on iPad for a decade and there really is not competition against it.  The herculean effort behind each line – iPod, iPhone or iPad – speaks for itself when Apple really unveils its product. It is smart to manage its perception as the most innovative company in the world today. Can you guess what Apple is working on today – other than the iPad3? Are they developing another ground breaking device which would sunset something else? The haze is on.

If you look carefully at any successful company for that matter, each one does the same job. Manage the perception of being innovative with effort and smartness. That’s the secret sauce. Resolve some pain point without revealing how you did it. Just bring a nicely packaged product to the customer and make it extremely simple to use. The point is that once a customer is hooked it does not matter to him/her how you solved the problem for them.  So the ‘hook’ is the real test of how honest & positive your company was with innovation. Save the word ‘innovation’ from your language, if you aren’t good at managing both the sides of innovation i.e. work & haze. Because you aren’t really innovating at all then.

It is simple. If there is not enough work, toil and effort (iterations) behind the haziness of innovation, you’ll end up losing credibility – and business. And if there is only work, work and work and no focus on casting the spell, you will lose attractiveness, curiosity of the world and business. You’ll lose business both ways if you misuse the word innovative in anyway.

Now the choice is yours, on how you want to manage innovation. How you want to be perceived. Oh yeah, so I ask again should innovation be a closed or an open activity?

[Guest article by Manish, cofounder of Bubbleideas. Republished from BI’s blog].

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