20 Days or 20 Years: The Mundanity of Innovation

The word innovation used to make me cringe. Innovation most commonly refers to truly unique products that define a new category. My mentality was basically “we only get an iPhone-level innovation once every ~20 years, so why even bother talking about it.”

(this is my second post on Jerry Neumann’s post Schumpeter and Strategy, you can read the first one here)

As discussed in the previous post, Schumpeter’s viewpoint is that companies make money by creating more outputs from the same inputs. Surprisingly, Schumpeter considers anything that accomplishes this as an innovation! This viewpoint broadens the category of “innovation” in an interesting way. You start looking at every business that makes money and ask the question: what is the innovation that’s causing money to be made here? It forces the realization that innovation is actually mundane.

Aldi supermarkets have you unlock shopping carts with a quarter. This means customers never leave them in the parking lot, and don’t steal them. It also means no one has to be paid to gather shopping carts from the parking lot. This innovation means Aldi has less overhead, which creates a business that generates money.

Walmart’s new push into grocery pickup, is, yes, innovation. It’s not innovation in the sense that it’s non-obvious. There have been companies doing grocery pickup for over a decade. It’s innovation in the sense that no one has done grocery pickup at Walmart’s scale. That means it’s an entirely new problem that no one has solved before, making the implementation itself innovative.

Anything that causes your business to create more output from its inputs relative to similar businesses is innovation. So, yes, if building your employees a ball pit creates more output from the same inputs, then that too is (unfortunately) an innovation.

This perspective is heartening, because innovation no longer necessitates grand-scale humanity-shifting inventions. Innovation simply becomes the daily churn of small changes and strategy decisions that lead any company to make money.

When you lower your sights to this mundane differentiation you start to understand more deeply the ways in which projects are, or are not, innovative. You begin to understand that no matter how similar a product may seem to others, there are typically core-level differentiators that if successful, are innovative.

Try taking innovation off its pedestal, and start asking how more output is being created from the inputs provided. Focus on those innovations, because if Schumpeter is right, then they’re the only reason you’re still in business.


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