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The Innovation Marathon

By: Michael Wynne
Posted: December 5, 2006, from the December 2006 issue of GCI Magazine.

Keeping up with innovation in today’s global market is like competing in a marathon against runners from all over the world. Similar to preparing for a marathon, innovation takes a lot of motivation, time and practice.

A major difference, however, is that timing is not as critical for a marathon as it is for innovation. You can run a marathon any time you decide, but innovation has to be timed just right.

Is there a right time for innovation? There is no one answer to that question because so many factors are involved. Here are some:

  • Obsolescence: There are many aspects of a business that can become obsolete that the list may be endless. Obviously, the timing means acting before any aspect becomes obsolete.
  • Competition: Quite often, innovations by competitors are the most urgent source of innovation motivation. You are starting from behind. The challenge is to be first.
  • Economic cycles: When the market is going down, an innovation can save a company’s life. On the other hand, if the innovation costs more than existing products, it can be a disincentive for consumers during bad times.
  • Company life cycle: Where is the company in its life cycle? An innovation at the right time in a company’s life cycle also can be a real life saver.

Innovation can extend the life span of a product. Nylon is a classic example of product life cycle extension. In the 1930s, it appeared on the market as a substitute for the silk in women’s stockings. During World War II, it was used for parachutes. After the war, it was used to produce tires. New uses were found for nylon each time its life cycle was about to run out. The innovation timing has given nylon the nearest thing to product immortality.

In today’s fast-paced markets, product life cycles are becoming alarmingly short. It seems as though products go directly from birth to commodity, the equivalent of decline, in no time at all.