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Margie Chiu: The Five Assassins of Innovation

MARGIE CHIU, SVP, Client Advisory Group at Merkle

Margie oversees comprehensive analytics and CRM strategy for Merkle’s retail division. Prior to that she held leadership roles at Wunderman and Razorfish. She authors a blog on Measureable Marketing and is a regular contributor to eMarketing & Commerce. This post originally appeared on both blogs.


Every company talks about innovation and recognizes the need to be innovative. But then why do so many promising ideas die an untimely death? Let me introduce you to the assassins of innovation who have your next big idea in their crosshairs:

1. Low Self-Esteem Larry: “We’ll never get away with it. We’re not (insert name of impossibly cool brand).” Don’t be fooled by his self-effacing facade. Larry is one of the most prolific eradicators out there. He strikes early and takes down ideas in their infancy. How to defend yourself against Larry?

Try this: A recent study from Millward Brown found that there was no significant correlation between brand or category involvement and likelihood of viewing and sharing viral video. Think about the most popular viral videos in recent years and the categories they represented: bottled water, a mobile provider and deodorant — not typically the types of things most people get worked up about. Well-executed ideas are what make a brand cool, not the other way around.

2. Benny the Brain: “We don’t have the data.” Benny’s right. Odds are, you won’t have the data to justify a truly innovative effort because data is inherently backward looking. Data can tell you the “what” but not the “why.” Nor is it about asking customers what they want. (Think back to the Henry Ford quote, “If I asked my customers what they want, they simply would have said a faster horse.”) The type of data you really need comes from talking, following and watching your customers to understand their needs, then creating a solution based on that understanding.

3. Practical Paulie: “[Insert name of brilliant idea] is just a fad.” Unlike Benny, Paulie usually has all the numbers at his disposal. For every idea, he’ll have a few stats to prove why it won’t work. The biggest issue with the industry reports and studies he cites is that they’re rarely specific to your audience, category or situation. Try turning the tables on Paulie. If 25 percent of mobile phone owners only use an app once, that’s 75 percent who are using it more than once. Innovation is rarely mass adoption; it’s about seeding a new idea, reaching early adopters and gaining traction.

4. Helga the Historian: “It’s already been done/We’ve already tried that.” Helga lurks in unexpected places, including companies that are considered innovators by most standards. She’s the one who reminds the team, “We tried mobile back in 2002, and it was a disaster.” Let Helga know that it’s 2011 and times have changed.

Facebook didn’t invent social networking. Remember MySpace? And before that Friendster? And if you go way back, GeoCities? Sometimes it’s just the right idea at the wrong time. Other times it’s the right idea but it’s executed poorly. There are countless reasons why innovations fail. The key is to learn from your mistakes and the successes of others to maximize your odds of producing a winner. Think about your most admired companies. Chances are few, if any, were the first to market. Let Helga know it’s not about being first, but about being better.

5. Big Al the Accountant: “We can’t afford it.” The economic downturn has lavished Al with a lot of extra ammunition. Companies believe they’re doing the right thing by staying with the tried and true, avoiding the risks of bringing a new idea to market. However, it’s companies that are continuing to invest in innovation during tough times that are emerging from the recession with higher growth rates. In this case, think small. Distill down a grand vision to its essential components and propose ways to execute it quickly and inexpensively.

Arming yourself against the assassins
The assassins aren’t invincible (otherwise, I’d have made them superheroes). Know how they’ll attack and be prepared. To summarize, here are quotes from a couple of the smartest people I know: Sun Tzu: “Know your enemies and know yourself and you will win countless battles.” My mom: “Don’t forget to do your homework.”

Follow on Twitter @margiechiu

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