Suellen used to work for a company founded on a great idea – there’s a lot of information out there and, if you can organize it, you can sell the organized information for a lot more than the raw data. The company, Information Handling Services (IHS), got its start by organizing and re-selling government information and military and technical specifications. (Today, the company offers a whole range of analytic and forecasting services as well).
Though IHS is very successful, I’d like to use one of their less successful products to illustrate an insight about innovation. In the early 90s, IHS identified an underserved market: home furnishing suppliers and designers. The information about home furnishings – furniture, carpets, upholstery, cabinets, fixtures, etc. – was highly fragmented. Designers who wanted to buy furnishings had an extremely difficult time identifying, locating, and evaluating their choices.
It seemed a perfect market for IHS. After all, they were experts at gathering and organizing information and making it easily searchable. And that’s just what they did. They contacted furnishings suppliers, gleaned the necessary information, and put it into an electronic system – called Showroom Online — that designers could search in a variety of ways. (For instance, “Find all Louis XIV style chairs that cost less than $1,000 and are available within six weeks”).
Then the IHS designers made a fateful technology decision. They chose to store and distribute the data on 12-inch LaserDiscs. LaserDiscs were among the first optical/laser, random-access storage and retrieval media. They were way ahead of their time. And that was the problem. Not many people had LaserDiscs, or understood them, or could afford them.
From what I remember, Showroom Online was a well-designed system. It just had one flaw. It didn’t fit.
I thought of Showroom Online as I was reading The Wide Lens, Ron Adner’s new book on innovation. Adner argues that, all too often, innovations fail because we take a narrow perspective. We focus on what we need to do. Adner calls this execution focus: “What does it take to deliver the right innovation on time, to spec, to beat the competition?”
Adner argues that execution focus is what causes failures like Showroom Online. We need to take a wider perspective. Specifically we need to recognize two types of risk:
Co-innovation risk – “…the extent to which the success of your innovation depends on the successful commercialization of other innovations.” (This seems to be what took down Showroom Online).
Adoption chain risk – “ the extent to which partners will need to adopt your innovation before end consumers have a chance to assess the full value proposition.”
This all relates to the issue of framing (which I’ve written about before). If you define your frame narrowly, you’ll miss a lot of important information. Other people – politicians, salespeople, teachers – may try to define the frame for you but you can also frame yourself. The trick is to take a step back, look around, and broaden your horizons. That’s important to you personally. It’s even more important to your innovation.