The role of speed in innovation: gaining a competitive advantage

“I have the need, the need for speed.” – Top Gun

There’s a belief in some quarters that if you deliver a new idea quickly, you’ll deliver innovation. Get it out fast, claim the market position, and work out the kinks later – that’s what minimum viable products are all about, right?

But go too fast, and what seems on the surface to be groundbreaking may very quickly turn out to be a bit of a lemon, and a costly assumption for the business.

In 2017 Juicero was a Silicon Valley startup darling, having raised $120m in investment on the promise of a kitchen-friendly cold pressed juicer that used prepared packets of fruits and vegetables which the company supplied via subscription. It was only when the packets got into the hands of consumers, that it was discovered that you could squeeze the contents into juice faster than the $400 machine. Roasted in the media, and disparaged by customers, within months the company had shut down.

In the battle between innovation and speed, which wins?

Successful innovation solves real problems

While launching new ideas quickly is crucial in establishing a competitive advantage, speed is only a good thing if you are solving a problem that actually exists and meaningfully improves the lives of your users.

In thinking about innovation, it can be considered from different fronts;

The value your product or service delivers to customers, which can be either functional (e.g. offerings like wireless charging or Amazon Prime) or emotional (such as the launch of Apple’s rose gold device range).

Innovation can also be considered in terms of what is realised by the business, including ROI, a reduction in resources or time, improved customer experiences (either internal and external) or better alignment to organisational goals.

Whether it’s externally or internally facing, innovation aims to change peoples’ lives for the better – and its success is defined by what’s meaningful to them. Building in time upfront to understand what you’re solving and pinpointing the value in an opportunity, should then be seen as an investment.

Speed is the driver of the innovation cycle

Perhaps then, it’s better to place the focus slowly and methodically validating assumptions, so that each release is as close to perfect as you can make it?

If that strategy worked well, you might be checking Friendster 14 times a day, rather than Facebook. Friendster, which predated both Myspace and Facebook was a pioneer in social networking, famously turning down an acquisition offer from Google. But while they developed many innovative features ahead of Facebook, very few were actually released, allowing the more agile Facebook to eventually overtake them.

Getting customer feedback is crucial for any business, but even more so when you want to explore ideas and test assumptions. By running rapid and targeted experiments you are able to gather timely and more relevant feedback around emerging needs and market opportunities. Leveraging consumer insights which support your innovation efforts will only increase your competitive advantage.

Shortening the steps also allows you to test ideas before investing too much time or resources, which in turn can make people more tolerant to risk.

Taking too long to launch – even if it’s the perfect solution – can be a route to failure. Of course there will always be another feature to add, or UI to improve. But delay too long, and a competitor moves in or the customer moves on.

It’s clear that neither speed nor pure innovation triumph. Instead, we need to find the sweet spot where we can launch as soon as our product is good enough to learn from, so that the company can realise value in the fastest way possible.

Finding the balance between speed vs innovation to create your competitive advantage

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, you can’t have one without the other. As an organisation there is no point in focusing on innovation if you aren’t able to get the product into the hands of customers quickly and efficiently.

And conversely, there is no point focusing on speed, if what you’re doing isn’t delivering value to the customer and just like you would balance your personal investments portfolio, your organisation needs to diversify the development of its products and services.

You need to have a healthy balance of high risk, high return (focused on experimentation and innovation) and low risk, more stable investments, which you have high confidence will provide value to your end customers.

This means having an innovation spectrum, with an increased level of uncertainty vs reward at each stage. The weighting you place on each stage of innovation should stay aligned to your organisational goals:

  1. Reduction of costs and resources
  2. Identifying new markets for existing products and services
  3. Taking existing products and services, and applying them to tangential problems
  4. True ‘blue sky’ innovation

What needs to be in place across the business to support speed?

Contrary to popular belief, speed doesn’t require everyone across the business running at the same pace. Different functions, business units, geographies need to run at the right pace for them – but they do need to be supported with technology, structures and processes that reduce roadblocks and allow them to move more easily. These include:

Technology systems

  • The use of DevOps to integrate product development with IT operations allowing them to focus on getting products and features to market faster.
  • Automation of your product development wherever possible to increase your speed of development, testing and delivering.
  • Regular releases to the customer base to enable better in-the-field testing and refining.

Organisational structures

  • Vertical networks as well as horizontal networks to encourage collaboration.
  • Company-wide alignment of KPIs around the metrics surrounding speed and customer value so you don’t focus on one at the expense of another.

Business processes

  • Identifying, reducing or removing, where possible business rules and sign offs that can be a roadblock to delivery.
  • Tools, infrastructure and program for change to encourage people to focus on getting things out, rather than getting things perfect.

In this new environment, value won’t be realised when the product is launched. Instead, value is only realised when customers find it valuable to them, and the company can begin learning from it. And the trick is to make sure both are realised as soon as possible.