How Perpetually Fixing Small Problems Will Kill Your Company


By: Phillip Bogdanovich

Have you ever noticed that some companies roll out product after product, but each “new” product looks suspiciously like the previous one? These aren’t software updates or resolving known issues—which are part of solid operations—but incremental product changes that fail to make any real impact. The oil industry is notorious for this approach and Apple is getting bad press for it right now. It begins to look like complacency to the market.

Big Oil: Stuck in Sludge

No matter how hard it tries to be seen another way, the oil industry is largely considered a dirty business run by massive companies with no concept of social responsibility or innovation. Since the early 1900s, there have been advancements in safety, refinement, and transportation—but the way companies drill oil has changed very little. Someone dies; it costs money; a change is made. Perceived shortages in oil lead to small tweaks in the refinement process to increase profits and make up the difference. Necessity drives incremental change. Incremental change is not innovation. The result is a hundred years of the same thing.

Apple: Going Bad?

Apple was amazing. Really, truly visionary. Then it wasn’t. Then it was. And now? Meh. I was an active part of this movement. We had an Apple II, an Apple IIE, the first tiny square Macintosh; my family was one of the early adopters. Apple has always had a strong brand identity, but in the late 80s and early 90s, its innovation died and it released a string of similar, outdated products. The PC market exploded around the same time. Costs dropped and devices became more accessible. There was massive software support, but Apple had isolated itself by building an operating system unique to its product. Apple’s uninspired incremental hardware changes allowed Microsoft-compatible hardware makers sufficient time to innovate product laughably superior to what Apple was producing.

Then Steve Jobs came back on board and released a computer that was attractive, competitively priced and spec’ed (sort of), and a complete departure from what the competition was producing. They sold the shit out of it. Mac was back. Then the Apple completely re-envisioned what a mobile device was supposed to be with the iPhone.

But what’s happening now? It feels like we’re getting reheated versions of the same tech. Success and incremental change to address small problems have left the iPhone and Mac laptops lacking. The honeymoon is over. The market wants tablet-integrated laptops and cutting-edge phones with features like wireless charging. How fast can ignoring the need for innovation bury a company like Apple? Ask a BlackBerry executive if you can find one.

Startups: Death by 1000 Papercuts

Drowning in incremental change isn’t only a problem for large companies. Startups that began as nimble and interesting have also seen their innovation die a death of thousand papercuts, although usually for different reasons than in large companies.

Size can often (but not always) kill innovation. With too much size and too many moving parts, companies can lose touch with a market or become too bloated to keep up with current feature demand. They can be weirdly bad at predicting innovation requirements. They lose their vision. They become a massive “me too” product. It’s not a coincidence that rather than innovating in-house, some of the world’s biggest brands acquire their innovation by buying small, creative companies.

Small companies, on the other hand, have a habit of clinging to tactics that work long after they’ve outgrown them. No product is future-proof or without room for improvement. “If it sells, don’t touch it” does not apply. Yet many startups make incremental change all the way to oblivion. Once the incremental approach has affected one vertical or offering, it tends to permeate a company and undermine the entire operation.

To stay innovative, startups must be structured in a way that allows them to separate incremental change from innovation, tactical from strategic. The executive staff must focus on road-mapping strategy while the CEO forges ahead with company vision. Without being bold and taking chances, they serve customers re-heated tech.

What Does Real Innovation Look Like?

When I look at the tech landscape for an example of innovation, I don’t think of a company. I think of a person: Elon Musk. In the beginning, no one in the car industry saw Tesla as a real threat. Now it is one of the best-rated cars on the market and selling as fast as it can manufacture. Then there was Space-X and the privatization of space travel. No one thought privatization was really possible, especially with an unproven startup, but Musk had success there too. He saw an opportunity and a way forward when no one else did, including NASA. Then there was Solar City. While the rest of the panel market was looking at flexible panels, smaller panels, panels made from different material, Musk saw solar roof tiles. He’s now working on creating a product market. If he’s right, he will simultaneously change the roofing, solar, and home construction markets forever. There’s a strong argument for Elon Musk being the next Steve Jobs.

To be the best, most innovative version of our professional selves, executives must understand which pieces belong where. Incremental change is an operational requirement for R&D and product management. We need to continually fix the problems that arise with our product so that customers feel we are being proactive in our product support and they remain loyal. This is tactical necessity.

Marketing, Product and the CEO need to be looking over the horizon, pushing the vision of what’s new and what’s next. Challenging boundaries will keep a company innovative. This is a strategic necessity.

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