I want to get in touch with you, not your number!

This week, the Economist had a special 14-page coverage on innovation. While the report is interesting in the diversity of subjects it covers, like many of the books I've read on innovation, I think it misses a crucial point on innovation.

Read books such as 'The innovator's Dilemna' or 'The Innovation Killer', you will find out that they attempt to make their point by first redefining what "an innovation" is. In the innovation killer, for example, the author defines an innovation as "application of an idea that results in a valuable improvement".

Great - IMO, however, it's always better to define what benefit something does, rather than what it is my attempt: I think that, put very simply, an innovation solves an existing problem more efficiently than any other existing alternative. Arguing if innovation is related to invention is pointless because solving a problem in a better way might require an invention or not.

Take the world of telecommunications, for example. Telecommunication is about enabling people to better communicate and remain connected. Think about Nokia's tagline: "connecting people" or even T-Mobile's "stick together".

How did humanity start solving this problem? First, very physically with in person conversations, on to smoke signals than to the phone. The phone revolutionized the way people communicate by making it unnecessary to physically put both parties in the same room to communicate efficiently. Look where we are today. We can now have virtual meetings through products like LiveMeeting or Roundtable (by the way, Microsoft launched its suite of communication products this week - just amazing - check out the keynote and demo here).

While the above paragraph is a very shortened and simplistic history of communication, there are two trends to observe:

  • Innovation is not about the innovation itself - it is about what it does, what problem it solves. Note that throughout the years of innovation, the means to solve the problem have varied greatly, however, the problem has never changed: "connecting people"

  • Innovation requires a different way to think about "the problem": if you read Christensen book, you'll find that he advises NOT to listen to your top customers if you want to innovate. While his statement can be misinterpreted (after all, Geoffrey Moore, teaches us the exact opposite in 'Crossing the chasm'), I think that what he meant was that innovators are ones that are not stuck in the old way to think about customer problems. I think the main lesson here, is that most innovations come from players that have to approach the problem in a way that might be different than more traditional or existing approaches, either due to their own limitations or due to their business model. Worked to its fullest extend, a innovative approach can the industry inside-out and make old players somewhat obsolete because they are stuck with their own model (Christensen has older hardware examples, I think of more recent ones such as vs. SAP, Netflix vs. Blockbuster...etc).

If you watch this great keynote from Jeff Raikes on the world of communication, you'll hear one of my favorite soundbites: "I want to get in touch with you, not your number!".

To me, this statement, summarizes the point of innovation . An innovation is not about what it is, but about what they accomplish: in this example, getting two or more people in touch more efficiently.

The main challenge for telecommunications remain ahead however. For one, I find it outrageously backwards that we still have to travel hours to a destination to present or attend a short meeting. This model is highly inefficient and while I can see the benefit of in-person presence, I can't imagine that this will not be the main problem we need to solve next.

How can we emulate this presence? I can't help to think that someone must be working on this. After all, isn't physical presence just an optical illusion? Shouldn't technology allow us to emulate it exactly? We might have tried using teleconferencing software and other inventions but we have not done so with a high-enough level of fidelity so it can be validated...