Phil Friedman

5 years ago · 4 min. reading time · visibility 0 ·

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Innovation Does NOT Always Mean Progress

Innovation Does NOT Always Mean Progress==

Before Writing Comes Thinking


A motto widely accepted in modern industry today is, " Innovate or die..." In most cases, the costs of new product development are happily accepted, even by the bean counters in the accounting department. And in many companies, it appears that a "creative" euphoria takes over, under which there is an unquestioning push to create new and "better" products.

In many cases, you have to wonder whether anyone had really thought through a given new product development ...

In my experience and considered opinion, the situation with purported innovations is akin to the parable of "The Emperor's New Clothes". Nobody wants to challenge a prevailing enthusiasm for a new product or other development. Nobody wants to be the naysayer who points out that a "new and improved" product isn't really any better than what now exists, and in fact, may be worse. Consider the following example of a product with which I have long-term personal experience, the Zodiac G3 automatic swimming pool cleaner. It is probably...

...the best automatic self-powered swimming pool cleaner ever designed or made, bar none.

But first, please understand that I have absolutely no connection to the Zodiac company, or to the design or manufacture of this product, or to the marketing and sales of it. My only connection to the product is as a consumer who has used this product for over 10 years, and just elected to replace the one I have, which is finally wearing out after 10 years of constant sun and chlorine exposure, with the same product.

Second, understand that I live in South Florida, where we take our swimming pools very seriously, because they are in use almost 365 days a year, where we have an entire major service industry in pool cleaning and maintenance. So when I tell you that this is the best automatic pool cleaner ever conceived and manufactured, understand also that it is not only my opinion involved, but that of every pool service contractor with whom I've spoken, and that of dozens of other consumers with whom I've had contact.

This particular product is a marvel of simplicity. It is driven by water that is being suctioned through the G3 cleaner into the pool filter by the existing pool pump. The cleaner has only one moving part, a kind of guppy-mouthed diaphragm that opens and closes, causing the intake water flow to pulsate, and thereby driving the cleaner head endlessly and quietly back and forth underwater while it vacuums and scrubs algae and dirt from the pool's submerged bottom and side surfaces. The G3 is a rare case of receiving high value for absolutely every penny you spend on it.

So why am I telling you all this? And what does it have to do with this discussion of innovation? I am using this example because...

...the Zodiac G3 has been replaced by the manufacturer with new products that are nowhere as effective or reliable.

It's now almost impossible to find the G3 in the pool supply stores. The one I just purchased to replace my 10 year old G3 had to be ordered online from a warehouse and shipped to me.

The irony of this case of innovation and product replacement is that the older product in this case receives, as far as I can determine, much better consumer ratings than the new model that replaces it. So why the innovation in the first place? It can't be reduce manufacturing costs, for the replacement product is more complicated and, I'd bet, more expensive to produce. It can't be to improve profit margin, because older G3 and the newer replacement sell at exactly the same price. And it can't be to maintain market share by presenting to the market a quantum leap upward in terms of performance, because the replacement product just doesn't work as well as the product it replaces.

Innovation pursued not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, too often produces retrogression.

I submit that decisions like this one to replace a perfectly good product, indeed a great product, are driven by the belief that innovation is in itself a worthwhile goal — when it's not. Oh sure, the old saw, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, is trite and, moreover, is usually used to justify a culture of company lethargy. But the obverse should also be considered seriously, namely, if it works better than just about anything else on the market, don't replace it — unless you can determine that the replacement will be measurably better.

If increased marketing sizzle is what a company is after, then some graphics or packaging changes might do just as well, with much better cost-efficiency. Toothpaste and cereal makers learned this long ago. They change the packaging. And at times claim to produce "a great new taste". But in the final analysis, they don't try vainly to gild the lily. That's something the manufacturing sector seems still not to have gotten. — Phil Friedman

Author's Notes:  If you found this article of value, you may want to take a look at some of my other writing about small business operations and management:

"What I Learned About Entrepreneurs From the Founder of"

"Selling Bull Chips in a Bag"

"Tips for Successful Consulting"

"Maximizing Throughput on Fixed Assets and Overheads"

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About me, Phil Friedman:
  With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.

The (optional-to-read) pitch: As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve the clarity of their thought and writing, master the logic of discussion, and deal confidently with disagreement.


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Text Copyright © 2016-17 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
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Kevin Pashuk

4 years ago #2

We worth resurrecting. A fine piece by Phil Friedman... brought up during a comment conversation on outcomes based innovation.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #1

Some executives think that newness per se sells. Possibly because they buy all the bull chips about marketing to millennials. Thank you for reading and commenting, Julie Hickman.

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