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I attended a meeting this week where a number of highly placed executives sat at lunch and discussed the economy, technology, and, eventually, innovation.  One of the executives raised this point (and I paraphrase and shorten her extended point and example):

Why do so many companies think they’re fooling us with false innovation?

Now, if you’re following along at home, “false innovation” as I am using it (and unlike how others and still others have used the term) is an announcement of a “new idea” that doesn’t improve a product (unlike a sustaining innovation) or isn’t a game changer (unlike a disruptive innovation). [If you wish, re-read Clayton Christensen’s 2004 interview and remind yourself.  And yes, I know that those terms are much maligned, misused, and ridiculed by some people, but I still remember the chill of “rightness” I got when I read the theory for the first time.]  For this executive, this kind of “false innovation” is just a way to fool consumers into paying more money for the same thing.  Therefore, it might be something new to a product, but it’s really not innovative–either way–at all.

I can’t stop thinking about it.  Is she right? Wrong? In her mind, the “false innovation” is one that is a kind of a bait and switch–watch us innovating!–a marketing ploy to refresh a product or even a company that has begun to bore the market. Or–if the idea that determining what is sustaining or disruptive is in the eye of the consumer–it’s an “innovation” that really isn’t one.  Her examples included Microsoft, Sony, and Walmart, and this began a lively discussion completely in my own head about whether companies that become bloated and content with their own mantra become false innovators.

My husband the economist added another dimension to this: companies like Apple, who have set an innovation standard for themselves that they may not be able to reach–call it “stevejobsism,” that first week of March announcement that changes the game.  (And is part of the reason why there was so much ho-hum this year–What? Another iPad? Yay! What else? New Apple TV? No? Hmmm) Are those false innovations, or just ideas that fall flat? Is there a requirement that the intent be to fool the market? Or is that just the result?

Put on enough fanfare and fireworks to fool the consumer (if not the market) into thinking that you’ve done something fresh and new, and hope they don’t look beneath the hullabaloo to what’s really going on.  This executive was truly indignant that these companies had such a low opinion of the consumer–something with which most observers would agree, if for another reason.  I don’t feel insulted, but I must admit that  I’m having no trouble finding examples to support the theory.

So how do those of us who want to be innovators avoid the “false innovation?” And even more honestly for those long-time businesses, how do we keep our businesses fresh even when we have no new innovations to display?  And how do we compete in the market?