Spot The Innovation
Editor | On 17, Apr 2018
Something a bit different this month. How many innovations can you spot in this collage?
This conclusion is based on our conventional definition of innovation as ‘successful step-change’. Let’s see how each of the attempts shown in the collage fare against this definition. Working our way from the top left…
Tata Nano – very definitely a ‘step-change’ in terms of the vehicle’s design. I was working with GM in the US when the Nano was announced, and they were palpably fearful since the cost-reduction ambitions of the project would fundamentally disrupt the tier structure of the industry. Fortunately for GM, the project has thus far not paid back its investment, and so in Tata’s terms it cannot be called a success. The Nano is a classic example of the cruelty of the innovation game: get 99 things right and one thing wrong, and you lose your money. The big failing here, one that still adversely affects the Company, is the realization that very few customers wish to associate themselves with the ‘cheapest’ offering on the market no matter how good it might be technically. What Nano ended up doing was opening up the market for the second and third cheapest cars.
Airbus A380 – the world’s fully double-decker passenger aircraft features a number of ‘innovations’. The project, however, has achieved a small fraction of its target order-book and thus fails the ‘successful’ criterion. My ears aren’t ringing when I get off an A380, which is great, but Airbus continues to lose money on the whole venture. It’s doubtful it will ever now leave the red and become financially positive.
Segway – iconic example of inventor hubris. Dean Kamen’s re-invention of personal transport is exactly that: invention and not innovation. Another project that, despite the elegant gyroscopic self-balance technology, the venture has proved to be a massive financial black-hole. Ironically for Kamen, the product that preceded the Segway – a wheelchair capable of raising the occupant onto two self-balancing wheels – was very definitely an innovation. Kamen and the investors he coaxed into supporting Segway failed to realise that a niche product doesn’t always get to go mainstream. It singularly fails to do the ‘personal transport’ job better than a myriad other transport alternatives.
Dyson Washing Machine – having made an enormous success with his cyclone-based vacuum cleaner, James Dyson could seemingly do no wrong. His next target was the domestic washing machine. The ‘step-change’ was an elegant split, counter-rotating drum. As for successful, the project never found its way into the black. A classic case of solving a problem few if any customers had. That plus it turns out there’s nothing aspirational about owning a cooler, triple-priced washing machine than your neighbor, rather they label you as someone with more money than sense.
Google Autonomous Car – slightly unfair to call this project a ‘failure’ because in all likelihood it hit the public consciousness as a statement of intent from the Company, rather than being intended as a full commercial venture. It’s very definitely got a number of step-change features, but it’s very definitely a research programme and not an innovation.
Ford Edsel – one of the all-time classic ‘failed’ products, the Edsel famously cost Ford an awful lot of money and lost pride. The Edsel utterly fails the ‘successful’ innovation test. On the other hand, it featured a whole string of technology features that a decade later became industry standards. A classic case of the right technologies in the wrong package at the wrong time.
Tweel – like a lot of ‘innovators’, Michelin hit upon a good idea – with our help I might add – and very quickly get greedy. The tweel is another niche product that the Marketing folks decide they’re going to turn into the next-big-thing in the domestic car market. When the domestic car buyer saw it they overwhelmingly voted with their feet to not adopt the technology because it looks dumb. Consequently, Michelin have lost their financial shirts on the project, and none of the niches – small off-road vehicles mainly – have allowed even a fraction of the overall investment to be recouped.
DeLorean – unless you count the car’s appearance in Back To The Future, the DeLorean’s fiberglass and stainless-panel body and gull-wing doors represented yet another automotive industry step-change ego-project failure. A classic example of a big idea with an acute absence of attention to detail. Launching high price ‘luxury’ vehicles in an economic recession also turns out to be a fairly bad idea. The Company famously went bust two years after the car’s launch. Still, it has subsequently given the world the flux- capacitor!
Tesla – Elon Musk is perhaps the ultimate example of living the American Dream… the big-thinking entrepreneur with a passion for rethinking everything. Tesla, the step-changing range of electric-vehicles is intended to be one of the cash-cows that will fund the exciting R&D to deliver all the other Brave New World solutions. Sadly, as yet, the project is still burning far more money than it is generating. Living the Dream, Musk is also perhaps – currently – also a great example of what ‘too sexy to fail’ means: investors and public alike seem more than happy to keep funding those Dreams.
Furby – the world’s first ‘intelligent’ toy, a must-have Christmas present in 1998, when the toy was launched, and still selling in enormous numbers five years later, despite the frustrated tears of parents. Furby is the first of our two innovations: the technology was a step-change and, as far as manufacturer, Tiger Electronics, are concerned, Furby has been a massive commercial success… at least so far… let’s hope they don’t start receiving psychiatrist bills from their now grown-up customers.
Terrafugia TF-X Flying Car – no sector attracts deluded designers and investors like ‘flying cars’. Terrafugia is one of the latest attempts. They’ve even managed to get a prototype in the air. While there’s definite evidence of technology step-change, this is still ‘R&D’ and therefore nothing to do with innovation. Another project that will almost inevitably a) burn ever greater amounts of investor money, b) never break-even.
Fluted Engine Nacelle – one of the most distinctive features of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the fluted engine nacelle bypass exhaust found on the Rolls-Royce engines. Looking at its order book, the Dreamliner looks set to be a big success. The engine nacelles represent a success that has already paid for itself. And delivered a technology step change. It is thus the second of our two innovations. The irony with this one is that the fluted design was first demonstrated (on one of my projects as it happens) and patented back in the late 1980s, meaning the pay-back gestation period has been around 25 years. Just long enough that the patents are now expired.
Hyperloop – another Musk ‘big project’. LA to New York in under an hour, or something like that. Great step-change. Great R&D. With a very strong following financial wind, ‘possibly’ an innovation. In twenty years’ time.
Google Glass – another of Google’s R&D projects allowed to go viral before the technology was really ready. Great PR, some very nice step-change technology, and a big investment black-hole. This one is very likely to ‘become’ an innovation in the future. Now that the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and ‘trough of disillusion’ stages have passed, Google Glass can finally start getting on with delivering tangible benefit across a whole range of high-value niches.
Colgate Beef Lasagna – sadly no double-bluff with this one: teeth-cleaning convenience food might be classed as some kind of step-change, but this turned out to be one of the most disastrous product launches ever. Strangely, the public somehow weren’t able to make the connection between lasagna and toothpaste.
Torotrak – the continuously variable gearbox ‘innovation’ every mechanical engineer has been wanting to succeed since the concept appeared over 20 years ago. The technology makes for a beautiful piece of ‘Swiss-watch’ engineering, but few if any customers have as yet been convinced the benefits the technology offers outweigh the costs and harms. Great example of too much optimization thinking on a design crying out for two or three more step-changes.
Sometimes people challenge our research finding that 98% of innovation attempts fail. Hopefully this small sample reveals why the whole damn innovation game is so difficult.