HBS Managing Innovation Winter 2012 Course

24Apr/1189

How about the disadvantages of innovation?

In class, we dedicate a lot of time to discussing the benefits of innovation. I’d like to invite you to take a moment to think about instances when innovation might disadvantage us… how about instances when innovation might contribute to unnecessary waste, or land and water pollution? What about instances when innovation might stifle our creativity? What have you come up with? I’ve given it quite a bit of thought and I’d like to share two instances with you.

Planned Obsolescence
Many years ago (when Harvard University Press maintained a bookstore in the Holyoke Center), I stumbled upon Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence In America, which documents the history and current pervasiveness of planned obsolescence, the notion that items are deliberately produced with a finite useful life. Sometimes poor quality materials are used precisely to time the item’s expiration. Have you ever wondered why your first digital camera had less features than your current one, but still works—and may in fact, yield better picture quality (albeit fewer megapixels—who needs 15+ megapixels anyway? Though that isn’t stopping Panasonic from its 20 megapixel plans…)? I’ve noticed this about my current Canon Elph vs my original one. For the longest time, I subscribed to my own well-crafted cynical theory: of course the first few models are reliable, durable and of remarkably high quality, how else will Canon (or any other manufacturer) establish its brand reputation as industry leading and brainwash you into an inexplicable unwavering and unwarranted eternal brand loyalty: “Ah this one is just a fluke, Canons are top quality, they’ve always been!” you say to yourself as you go shopping for a Canon replacement. Yes, that is the power of marketing credibility!

On the one hand, the economic benefits clearly accrue to both the technical and stylistic innovators who are encouraged to consistently introduce new versions and models, as well as to the big manufacturers who can manipulate consumers to continuously buy more. After all, durability “does not produce prosperity, but buying things does.” On the other hand, the social and environmental externalities are staggeringly significant: millions upon millions of usable yet stylistically obsolescent electronic objects are cast away to landfills, polluting both land and water (although to be fair, some must get recycled to the emerging markets, so you if you want to make the green argument, if it makes you feel better, point taken). So, clearly resources are wasted, and beyond that, time and energy is diverted from improving the quality of objects to simply modifying them for the sake of introducing new models (Volkswagen apparently mocked the concept in 1959 with its advertising campaign: “We do not believe in planned obsolescence. We don’t change a car for the sake of change.”).

Innovation of Toys
This is a topic that I’m personally quite passionate about. The innovation of toys—some toys—has come at a steep cost to creativity. Remember when you played with Lego bricks as a child? You had the freedom to construct anything you wanted with those rectangular bricks. They came in a huge box, without instructions, themes or prepackaged sets. You literally had to harness your own creativity to build something—anything! Today, more themed boxes are sold than classic brick sets. Children’s creative powers are constrained; they don’t need to figure out how best to utilize their pieces to construct Hogswart or the Batmobile. There are sets with specified pieces, and instructions to guide them. Luckily Lego still offers the classic brick sets and its innovations aren’t all bad; tiny Lego people add quite a bit to the fun!  But certainly, the negatives of innovation must be noted.

If I ever opened my own toy store, I’d have a place at the center of the store with just cardboard boxes, scissors, markers, glue and construction paper. I’d give children 20 minutes and ask them to do something with the box, make something, transform it into something. I’d love to see what they would come up with. I love the versatility of the cardboard box – it could be anything: a wagon, a part of one’s fort, a dollhouse. Today, children don’t need to imagine those things.  With innovations in technology reducing the cost of production, their parents can walk into Toys R Us and for less than $20, get them a beautiful shiny wagon, or a multi-roomed themed dollhouse. I’m not against those specific toys.  To me, it’s just sad that some innovations have actually stolen opportunities from kids to imagine, discover and create.

I’ll leave you with Calvin and Hobbes.  If you recall, Calvin had quite a bit of fun with cardboard boxes. To him, they served as flying time machines and duplicators, transmogrifiers and secret meeting places.

Posted by ahuynh

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  1. I think this is definately an interesting idea and something worth thinking more about, though I do think that both of the examples you’ve described are more market inefficiencies rather than innovation-gone-wrong. By that, I mean that these firms have innovated/modified their products in such a way that they create less value for the customer than is possible or than they did in the past. In the case of planned obsolesence, that is fairly obvious, and in the case of Legos, it takes just a bit of thinking and reminiscing about our own childhoods to realize that creativity is being stilfed (more on that in a second). These types of situations in fact create opportunities for entrepreneurs or other firms to serve these needs better and innovate in a way thats more effective for customers.

    For example, a long time ago, I remember lexus used to advertise that their cars had gold spark plugs that helped them last longer on the road (not sure if the claim is true), but the idea is that they are providing a longer lasting product for a premium price, so another competitor in the camera space (eg. Olympus) might offer a 10 year guarantee on their cameras which have market leading specs, to then convince some subset of customers who care most about quality to invest in their cameras. I’m not enough of a camera-phile to know if this has already occured, but maybe there’s an opportunity here.

    In the case of Legos, I am curious if kids actually follow the directions in the sets or if they just build whatever they want and eventually put all the parts into a giant bin that they then play from later on. But, if this gap exists, there’s an opportunity for an entrepreneur to bag up a bunch of different random pieces from random sets and sell it to parents desperate for their kids to learn to be creative!

    I think my point here with my random postings here is that poor quality, non customer-centric innovation (or lack of innovation generally) poses a market gap that then leads to opportunity for other firms to fill that gap. This requires the entire industry not duping a customer (as I think you are arguing is happening with planned obsolesence) or an ability to recognize the gap (as is happening with specific lego sets), but in the medium-term both of these issues will likely be uncovered and addressed by smart firms who will articulate the gap and fill it.

  2. Great post and I am on board with most of your views. However, it is also interesting to think about this as an unfortunate prioritization of the “problems” companies are trying to solve. And in my view, that many “advances” are making life easier and more straightforward BUT they are also over-enabling children and adults.

    For example – Lego likely viewed their task or “problem” as selling more Lego kits. This was probably not easily accomplished through pushing the preexisting generic “bucket o’Lego” kits. So now, how do we get children and parents to buy more Legos? I know – create Lego sets aligned with popular movies and characters and give instructions since it’s really hard for little kids to create the batmobile on their own. Result: kids excited in the toy store and later happy at home with their final creation of a batmobile identical to the picture of the product on its packaging. Failure: Lego has now lost its vision as to what it should be doing for kids…as you’ve argued, creativity is lost.

    Now the “problems” that many technology companies are yearning to fix these days hold a great parallel to your cardboard box. There’s been a lot of conflicting thought on this but I tend to agree with this article: http://www.brainhealth.utdallas.edu/index.php/blog/are-our-brains-being-rewired-by-technology, that “the wealth of information we have at our fingertips is creating a poverty of thought.” Innovative tech companies yearn to semi-automate our lives and help us make smarter decisions but in the process they start to steal away from our innate capabilities to do all of this ourselves…

  3. Fantastic post.

    You addressed primarily the external disadvantages of innovation. There are also internal disadvantages. The title of your post made me think of an old saying at my former company: “Innovate as a Last Resort.”

    At Ardica Technologies, we were developing high-tech consumer products. By the nature of the product, some innovations were required. What we found, though, was that coming up with a new idea and getting it to work in a prototype was easy, and could often be done in a few days or less. Going all the way from Phase 1 to Phase 4, on the other hand, could take years. This is really the Pareto Principle (80/20) taken to the extreme. We learned to look long and hard for off-the-shelf solutions, and only innovate if there were no other good option.

  4. I agree that sometimes innovation isn’t helpful – the Dabbawalla case we covered in class was a great counterfactual for innovation for innovation’s sake. I also agree that supposed toy “innovations” come at a loss of creativity. In fact, if you wanted to be extreme about it, you could easily say that all toys by definition short-change creativity because they are inherently a prop or “imagination support”. It would certainly take a lot more creativity to make a fun game out of rocks than a game out of legos.

    On the other hand, my understanding is that some interesting research has been done on really complex toys like 3D and/or multiplayer video games (aka the polar opposite of the “lego-style” toy). Apparently, the challenge of visualizing in 3 dimensions as well as managing multiple plotlines, characters, and motives, actually can be beneficial for how you think. At least for things like spatial reasoning and analysis. Not exactly creativity, but not bad either.

    http://www.pri.org/science/technology/benefits-of-video-games-1741.html

    Either way, very interesting points raised, and I certainly agree with increasing the sustainability of the products we consume.

  5. I agree that innovating for the sake of innovation can do more harm than good if special attention isn’t paid to the implications if implementation (both long and short term). I wrote about something similar for my blog post referencing the Dabbawala case and I do think innovation and technology is pushed upon constituencies (people, organizations, etc.) that may or not be ready and may stifle creativity, efficiency, etc.

    In the case of the Legos, the first thing I thought was I will prefer my child to play with Legos (boxed set or big blocks) vs. sitting zoned out in front of the TV…lol. My question is, how do we decide what tradeoffs to make when generating innovation that could potentially have negative consequences? Cars are a great innovation, but they pollute the earth, create traffic, and have the power to kill people. Should they have never been created because of the potential negative tradeoffs? I don’t know what the right answer is, but we are going to be faced with these types of decisions and as future leaders we will inevitably have to possess the skills and perspective to make decisions about the tradeoffs of innovation and technology growth.

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