Whenever we talk about innovation, there’s a tendency to regard it as something inevitably novel and unique. Something that no other organization has tried before.
When you have that kind of mindset, you’re always striving to be first, to break new ground and create new markets. In many ways, it’s a noble aspiration, but I don’t believe it to be a particularly wise one.
If you look back through history at some of the life changing technologies of our age, it’s rare for the eventual market leader in that field to be the one that pioneered the technology.
Google weren’t the first company to develop a search engine. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, or the IBM PC the first personal computer.
Even in less high-tech fields, this largely holds true, with pioneers in everything from disposable nappies to fluorescent lightbulbs, from mutual funds to microwave ovens, all failing to convert their first to market status into market leadership.
It isn’t that they had the idea but failed to executive it. After all, they all delivered a product to market and achieved some success with it. Alas, the efforts to convert early adopters, and the inevitable lessons that were learned from that process, nearly always allowed another company to come up on the outside and secure the mass market ahead of them.
The first mover advantage myth
It seems, therefore, that a rather more productive and fertile approach isn’t to strive to be unique and groundbreaking, but rather to keep a keen eye on what is happening out there, both in your own field and others.
You can then apply these findings, taking lessons from what has worked early on, and what hasn’t, thus making your own attempts both better than the pioneer and also hitting a market that has had some groundwork done on it.
Applying the lessons from live innovations in the marketplace allows you to make improvements on what has gone before, either on the product directly or through combining innovations together.
The key isn’t being first to market, it’s being the best in the market.