Cisco is an easy company to admire. Its successes command global respect; its failures deserve serious scrutiny. But the tech giant’s most recent Flip flop merits special focus. Cisco’s clever little camcorder collapse provides picture-perfect insight into a pervasive innovation pathology: Ignoring — or disrespecting — the obvious.
The company promised back in 2009 to bring out a Wi-Fi Flip in early 2010. It didn’t. The current Flip web site shows no Wi-Fi-enabled cameras. What happened?
Put aside, for the moment, that Cisco spent $590 million during a recession to buy into the camera business. Ignore the fact that Steve Jobs publicly declared he wanted his iPods to outflip the Flip in features and functionality. The sad but simple truth was that Cisco — arguably the world’s premier internet network technology company — didn’t deliver a Wi-Fi-enabled device. That’s technically akin to selling a hi-def tv without a remote control. Sure, it works — but it’s the antithesis of easy and convenient. You can’t ignore the obvious and succeed.
I won’t pretend to understand the technical issues associated with integrating Wi-Fi into videocams. But I’m completely comfortable asserting that Cisco should and did. Cisco’s leadership is very smart and Wi-Fi is part of the firm’s core competence. More important, the firm had clear line-of-sight into its competitors’ offerings. The company knew digital devices were all becoming telecommunications tools. Smartphones were becoming smarter. This was obvious. The proof is Cisco’s own 2009 new product promise.
How a blue chip technology innovator invests well over $700 million acquiring, developing, distributing and marketing a consumer digicam without a clear path connecting it to the most popular wireless medium around escapes me. I’m sure Cisco has excellent reasons. However, its press office didn’t respond in time for this post (its comments are welcome below).
Novel subtlety and nuance can be wonderful but my innovation heart belongs to obvious. The “innovation obvious” is not only where the action is, it is where the action must be. Perhaps Flip could never have succeeded as a standalone “good enough” digicam in competition with an Apple and an Android, but it didn’t have a hope in Hades without a wireless connection. Technology couldn’t have been the issue.
For most organizations, the question shouldn’t be “What’s the most innovative thing we can do?” or “How can we push the innovation envelope?” or even “What’s the innovation our customers most want?” — it’s “What’s the most obvious innovation that matters?” A craving for surprise should never be allowed to overwhelm the need for the obvious. And when you do “obvious” exceptionally well, it becomes its own surprise. A decade ago, touch screens were rarer than white rhinoceri; today, almost no one plays with an iPad interface without thinking “That’s obvious….”
Admittedly, “obvious” — like beauty — is in the eye of the beholder. But no surer or more straightforward way to avoid missing the “innovation obvious” exists than asking colleagues to declare what they think obvious. If the “innovation obvious” answer is “cut prices,” that speaks volumes about your firm’s innovation culture. But, more often than not, answering the “innovation obvious” question is a guaranteed gateway to usable insight.
The world is increasingly filled with mobile devices with touch-sensitive, high-resolution screens exposed to the elements and stroked by filthy fingers. Why haven’t P&G or Kimberly-Clark come out with fingertip Swiffers or Kleenex customized to cleaning them? Similarly, I’m amazed that my Gmail — which is at the core of how I manage so much of my interpersonal communications and coordination — doesn’t automatically link incoming dates to my Google Calendar. When I get an invite or a time and date request, those should be highlighted so that a simple click will take me to that location on the Calendar. How hard could that be to prototype or program as an option? (This “obvious” enhancement would be consistent with gmail’s business model, as well; it’s easy to imagine selling advertising against lunch dates, travel dates and business meetings…)
My third innovation obvious is equally obvious: Why not a daily QR code in a 7-11 or other retail outlet to promote a product or service of the day? Most retailers like to know what portion of their traffic would be motivated to sample or buy by a digital “coupon” on their mobile device.
Not only is there no shortage of innovative proposals, there’s no shortage of innovation obvious proposals. Cisco has lost over $500 million by underinvesting in the innovation obvious? What underinvestment in the obvious are you (not) making?