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When innovation equals follow the leader


I’ve written a few pieces recently about the value of openness when it comes to innovation.  Both on an individual level and an organizational one, there is much to support the notion that sharing your ideas is of great benefit to you, both in making those ideas more valuable, and in reducing the costs of building on the ideas of others.

Now that’s great, and you can imagine comfortably I’m sure the notion that innovation occurs in iterations, with small improvements built upon those of others.  A new paper casts a slightly different glow on the whole process however.

It suggests that, far from the popular notion of innovation, many supposedly innovative thoughts and activities within companies are done merely because rival companies have already made initial moves in that direction.  It is, the paper suggests, more about keeping up with the Jones than it is about assessing the relative merits of an innovation.

“Business leaders tend to panic when new innovations are about to hit the market. They scramble to buy an apparent early leader,” says the paper. “Sometimes this results in inferior products, but as we show in our study, in the airline industry there was loss of life.”

The focus of the study was the airline industry, and in particular the production of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 in the 1970′s.  The planes were so alike that they were dubbed The Twins by the industry, with each manufacturer competing fiercely with the other.

The Lockheed plane suffered from a delayed entrance to the market, which contributed to sales of roughly half that achieved by the DC-10.  The winning plane however could barely be regarded as a success, with numerous incidents resulting in over 600 deaths.  Such were the problems with the plane that it was temporarily grounded by the FAA in 1979.

The message is that airlines bought the DC-10 not on its technical merits but because they saw lots of other airlines doing the same.  It goes on to suggest that a similar situation may be unfolding today, with delays to the Boeing Dreamliner resulting in more sales for the Airbus A350, even though the plane had not completed flight testing or carried any passengers.

“We can’t say the bias to purchase the Airbus will result in negative events,” they say. “We won’t know if mistakes are being made for some time. But I can say the lesson of history should be guiding current practice.”

Suffice to say, it’s not common for decisions regarding innovation to have such serious consequences as are the case when purchasing an aeroplane, but nevertheless, it underlines the importance of deciding on innovations purely on their merits rather than relying on other people to do that for you.

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