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The Secret About Innovation

January 13th, 2014 · 11 Comments

“Too Much Innovation”, is there a word for it?

In the software industry there sort of is, it’s a bad word, and it’s called “Vaporware“.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is a similar word for new market research methodologies, if there is please let me know.

Pretty much all companies have both outbound and inbound marketing. Everyone knows inbound calls are far better than outbound cold-calls. In the former a potential new client has found your number somewhere, so they probably know something about you and probably also have a real need.

I happened to take one of these calls last week. At some point during the call I asked the customary “where did you hear of us?”, the response was, and I’m paraphrasing now, “Well I asked around a bit and heard your company has a more ‘traditional’ approach, and well I think that point of view matches our culture here well”. I laughed a bit as the response surprised me slightly, not because I don’t think there’s truth to it (depending on how you define “Traditional”), but because I’m not used to hearing it too often in a good way these days. I decided right away I liked this new potential client.

Hmmm “traditional”, but isn’t all text analytics innovative, and isn’t innovation a good thing?

Sure, I certainly like to think so. Was this client saying we weren’t innovative? No,that was not the case at all. Reading between the lines he was actually saying “Hey, I heard you know what you’re doing, you have techniques that actually work and do what they say they do. I’m tired of all this talk of ‘innovation’ don’t have time to separate all the wheat from the chaff. We’ve heard you guys aren’t just marketers selling “innovation” and vaporware, so we’d prefer to work with you!”

The call made me pause and think about the paradox of innovation. Everywhere you turn today you hear about an innovative this or innovation that. It seems every industry conference claims that they have the most innovative companies and speakers. But the hard truth about innovation is that TRUE INNOVATION, whether in software or in research service methodologies, is ALWAYS kept SECRET.

If you have anything innovative that is actually worthwhile there are only two ways to protect its value.

  1. Keep it as a trade secret
  2. If possible file for patent protection

Blogging it, speaking at a conference about it or even speaking to someone on the phone about it (outside of a non-disclosure agreement) means your innovative idea is free to be changed slightly and copied or, probably more likely, copied outright with no attribution to you or your company.

What does this mean in practicality?

It means you will never hear anything very innovative from my lips, or anyone else worth their salt, (unless you are under a mutual NDA). That also means that I have never included anything in a blog post or industry conference that I either don’t already consider a dated innovation (~4+ years old), or is something that is protected by patent law.

So what about all these innovative companies at these innovative conferences? Logically they can only fall into one of three categories.

  1. They are talking about rather dated information
  2. They are stupid
  3. Or worse, are selling “vaporware” (half baked ideas with little to no potential value)

What does that mean in regard to research industry events and about how we strive to market ourselves? Two things.

It means that rather than hoping to make clients think we are “innovative” - which would mean we are trying to convince clients that we are one of the many companies who claim to have some new idea that is worth their valuable time and consideration to evaluate under MNDA — maybe we should focus more on convincing them we have tried and true methods, deep expertise, and are trustworthy. That we are competent!

So where then, if anywhere, can free innovative ideas be found?

In my experience it’s certainly not at our industry conferences. While they’re great for a personal meet and greet, and hopefully some best practice case studies, unless you’re new to the field or have kept your head in the sand for the past 5-8 years there won’t be anything too innovative there.

However I have found innovation can often be found by looking across your field into other fields. Looking at what data those outside of our discipline collect, how they measure, analyze, visualize and put these findings into practice. Look specifically for fields that touch in at least one important way on what you are doing. For me personally (in text analytics) I sometimes get inspiration from psychology, olfactory, sound, vision, security and military sciences to name just a few.

You may be looking at ideas that are actually 5-8 years old in these fields, but they are likely to be new to you, and hopefully some will give you inspiration and ideas that lead to innovation!


[Full Disclosure: Tom H. C. Anderson is Managing Partner of Anderson Analytics, developers of a new patented approach to text analytics. The text analytics software platform is called OdinText]

Tags: MOst Innovative Market Research · Market Research · Marketing research · Text Analytics · Text Analytics Software · Uncategorized · innovation

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Edward Appleton // Jan 13, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Great post Tom. Totally agree with you on the paradox of people talking “innovative” in public forums - what’s truly powerful will inevitably be kept very quiet, not shared.

    I find innovative ideas in a similar but not identical way -i) looking at the intersect between different things/areas, ii) re-applying approaches or concepts in one area and then working to another.

    To point i): In trend management, innovative concepts or ideas often come by mashing up megatrends, taking a matrix approach to them if you like. Brain-bending but often very stimulating.

    To point ii) Six Sigma approaches (sounds dated, I found it refreshing) to me is a surprisingly great area for accessing innovative thinking - just an example, the 5 Whys is a fabulous way to do Culture Mapping, - start with Behaviours, then press the “why” question a few times to get at values and assumptions, the powerful stuff.

    Just quick feedback, great post.

  • 2 Ian Straus // Jan 13, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    I thought vaporware referred to software that someone was selling but had not written, and might or might not actually complete and get to work.

    But I agree with your main point.
    And I agree with your distruct of people selling the newest buzzword as the answer to all of our research needs, all of the time, regardless of our business. That is never true.

  • 3 Dude // Jan 13, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Yes, Yes and Yes. If I hear “Innovation” one more time I’ll explode!

  • 4 Steven Struhl // Jan 13, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    I think part of the problem is how you define “innovation.” Much discussion of this seems to revolve around moving research to another platform or honing some of the more invasive approaches, which do not ask people questions but rather sift through data they leave behind. One sad fact about research is that tried and true methods in other fields can be innovative here. That happened with discrete choice modeling, which was developed some 20 years before there were marketing research applications–even though this fits perfectly with some key aims of the field. This is happening now with Bayesian Networks, which can analyze questionnaire data and tie it to the actual marketplace better than many of the methods we have been traditionally using. This is not vaporware and yet it is not that easily stolen, as you need to know which approach works best for the questions at hand, and of course, how to apply it. I have seen questionnaire questions tied to share of wallet with 60% to 95% accuracy (and this cross- validated) using these methods. There are several other innovative (to marketing research) methods that we could be applying more so that we get more from the data as well. However, perhaps because of all the problems that the article rightly points out, there is a great deal of skepticism for true innovations–new approaches that do more. Unfortunately, we also have a problem in that many do not seem able to evaluate what is real and what is smoke–or vapor. This may seem like a call for better education, but perhaps even an unbiased forum that is generally accessible and not drowned in academic rhetoric would do a lot to help.

  • 5 Jason Anderson // Jan 13, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    The main dilemma with innovation: it’s supposed to be original, new, and IMPORTANT. Getting two out of three isn’t good enough.

  • 6 Dan Quirk // Jan 13, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Innovation is what research companies want to sell. And, when innovation lowers costs and provides great results, it is what buyers of research services want to buy. But pursuing innovation seems not to be a priority for the corporate researcher (client-side).

    In our Corporate Research Report (just out today!) we asked corporate researchers what factors were important in choosing a research technique. speed, low cost and representative sample all exceeded using “cutting-edge methodologies”. More importantly, more than 60% of respondents felt it was very important to use “proven methodologies” compared to only 15% for “cutting edge”.

    It makes a lot of sense. The corporate researcher needs to be confident in the results they are providing the CEO. The report give a lot of good quotes from corporate researchers too about innovation. It is a great read:

  • 7 Tom H C Anderson // Jan 13, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    Thanks all, those of you interested in this post also feel free to join the conversation about it in the NGMR LinkedIn group here:

    I just posted a long reply there. So rather than double post I’m providing link above.

  • 8 Tom H C Anderson // Jan 13, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    To “Dude” above, thanks, but please post real name and link when replying here. I generally don’t like anonymous posts even if I agree ;)

  • 9 Shaleen Shah // Jan 17, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Vaporware - got me curious and as I read on, made me laugh somehow. Isn’t it funny how we’re floating in all these ‘innovation’ with trending talks on ‘disruptive innovation’ lately– and a few folks who think they’d be better off disrupting the disruptive. I guess, it’s all about real value that matters most in the end.

  • 10 Lisa Courtade // Jan 21, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    I love this discussion and the challenge it poses. And I will attest that I am a corporate researcher looking for innovation. But let me be clear. I’m looking for practical solutions or value-based innovation. We have real business challenges to solve and limited time, people, and money. So both Tom and Dan are correct, at least in part, and depending upon where you’re standing. Too little of what I see is something branded as “innovation” that is really an old technique with some fancy graphics and a fancy pricetag. Or a vision, often a black box method, that has no proof and may or may not result in a meaningful benefit to the business (again at a significant cost). I do believe that some of the best “innovation” that I’ve seen, that I’ve brought in, and that I’ve created new standards around is actually borrowed or adapted from another industry or is an old technique that we can finally employ in a cost-effective manner thanks to the evolution of technology. Its not necessarily true “innovation” but new to us, and it solves a challenge in a novel, effective and efficient way that our more traditional approaches have failed to solve.

  • 11 Steve August // Jan 17, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    This topic has definitely touched a nerve in the community, judging by the threads here and on NGMR LinkedIn group. As the NGMR thread has gone sideways into a number tangents (including an off-putting spitting match between two individuals), I thought I comment back here on the original thread.

    As someone who has Innovation in my title, having started my own company, and now working in in the context of the larger company that acquired it,here’s my take on innovation:

    1. The word ‘innovation’, like ‘community’ and ‘ethnography’ before it, is used so loosely as to have lost its meaning.

    2. When you drill down into it, innovation is really about leaps in efficiencies and effectiveness. Electricity is a more effective and efficient way to light homes than say, whale oil or kerosene. Cars are more effective and efficient than horses. Google is a more efficient and effective way to search the world of information than a set of Encyclopedias. The common thread is that often the big leaps rely integrating preceding leaps in new ways. Think of all the advances that had to come into play to make the iphone - processors, glass, the internet, 3g net works, http://www.

    3. Innovations that deliver leaps in efficiencies and effectiveness unlock huge value for the people they serve. Value is usually expressed in time, money, new capability, or experience. The biggest innovations offer usually give people all of the above. Hans Rosling in his Ted talk the The Magic Washing machine ( demonstrated that the washing machine is one of the most important innovations ever because it marks the point at which developing nations accelerate as the time saved over washing clothes by hand liberates half the work force and boosts economic productivity dramatically.

    4. Within MR, innovation is often an aspiration, but at the end of the day certainly (as much as is possible) on the information being delivered to decision makers is really the core desire. MR also has the issue of having to normalize to previous methods, so just being new and better isn’t enough. It has to be better and correlate to past results. (Just look at the fuss that happens whenever Nielsen tries to adjust their rating system). I agree there is a lot of hype about things that have promise but haven’t proved out. And there’s likely more on the way. But going back to the central point, things that deliver leaps in effectiveness and efficiency will stick. Anything else won’t.

    OK, this has turned into a much longer response that I imagined. There’s a lot more to say about the topic, but will leave it here.

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