Thursday, 29 April 2010

Innovation Doesn't 'Kill' Anything

As someone who's been involved at one bleeding edge or other of retail innovation for over a decade, I flinch when anyone mentions the words 'critical mass'.

Innovation is hard, because it always means change for someone. And change is a difficult process - more so for most of the population than the comparative minority of innovators and early adopters who preach it. So, while it's vital that there are evangelists for change who are passionate and completely biased in their view of the benefits of the new and the disadvantages of the old, it's also important to temper their message when addressing the wider world. After all, new products don't need to 'kill' old ones, they need to co-exist.

Tempering the discussion of innovation is more easily said than done. Once upon a time, change was only whispered at the top of organisations or society, and you or me would get fired or killed for daring to speak its name. The joyous challenge presented by the social media is that discussions about change are open to everyone.

For instance, I've been directly involved in e-payments for over a decade, and various people have called for 'the death' of cash or cheques at one point or another. Some still do. But, while this resonates with the faithful innovators and early adopters, it is neither helpful to most people's acceptance of innovative financial services nor to the process of getting those services released. Ironically, it's a tactic of the sceptic or the laggard to seize upon the 'death' of something held dear as the reason not to embrace change, often relying on 'hard data' from the current process against merely honest estimates of the benefit to implementing the new one. And that can be enough to eliminate many an innovative project from crowded boardroom agendas.

But it doesn't have to be that way. I can readily see why cash (or cheques) are still a vital payment option. All payment methods should co-exist, and if people naturally refrain from taking up new ones, or gradually abandon one form or another until it becomes untenable, so be it. Releasing another useful option - with the sole benefit of increasing choice - can be enough to see another method abandoned, which can then be gracefully retired. Like the humble cheque, perhaps, in the face of the myriad alternatives. But as can be seen from the reports on that announcement, merely discussing the 'abolition' awakens deep resistance, and provides the sceptics and the laggards with a platform from which they can make change harder than it needs to be.

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