Innovation and the Middle of the Road Fallacy

by | Saturday, August 4th, 2012

On Friday, Jeffrey Phillips (@ovoinnovation) tweeted “As we say in Texas, the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and roadkill. Innovation isn’t for everyone.” He followed up his tweet with a blog post in which he declared that innovation is only about the edge and disruption.

BALDERDASH, we thought. Only Jim Hightower (twice elected Texas Agriculture Commissioner) and his merry band of populists talk trash about the middle of the road and dead armadillos.

Ever heard of the excluded middle law? The idea that “middle of the road” is bad is a false dilemma. Sometimes middle of the road options are better.

A “false dilemma” is a specific type of “logic fallacy” (a reasoning error that involves a situation in which only two black and white alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option — often times MANY, MANY more).

False dilemmas can arise simply by accident. They can also be used intentionally, in an attempt to force favor for a theory or choice.

This all comes back to our nation’s obsession with “disruptive and revolutionary innovation.” At REINVENTION Consulting, we refer to this unhealthy obsession as “innofrenzy.”

Innovation is NOT the exclusive domain of “certain companies” or “intellectual highbrows.” That’s myth and spin perpetuated by self-proclaimed “experts” and authors who are trying to justify their ivory tower expertise and existence. Furthermore, disruptive, revolutionary innovation (i.e., novelty or a dramatic paradigm shift) is NOT the only choice. And the alternative isn’t limited to inaction/stagnation.

A more REASONABLE concept for modern companies to consider and embrace is “everyday inventiveness and reinvention”. Taking carefully calculated step after step to ensure sustainable value creation and long term measurable impact. Using what you’ve got in unexpected ways…creating surprise utility. Simplification, reinvention, collaboration, change-ups, subtle pivots, leveraging underutilized resources, improvising, initiative, and incremental, continuous improvements CAN produce interesting, innovative solutions.

Evolution, not revolution. Evolution is nearly always more cost-effective and more sustainable than revolution. Evolution works. Evolution is often better.

Take for instance…

The Automotive Industry

Evolution Worked: Fuel efficiency standards and adaptation to hybrid combining combustion and electric has achieved relative success, allowing for orderly transition of supply manufacturers to new reality.

Revolution Failed: The automotive industry failed to force feed electric cars on consumers thirty years before battery technology was adequate or high speed recharging locations were available.

The Energy Industry

Evolution Worked: Development of shale gas / fracking implications for mix of use of refined oil has been successful.

Revolution Failed: Attempts to promote renewable wind and solar solutions have tanked. The cost to produce an equivalent amount of energy is not market competitive. Government intervention has tried to push embryonic technologies well before their time with little success.

The Technology Industry

Evolution Worked: Laptops were an evolution of the mainframe computer — and they caught on like wildfire. iTunes (and now Spotify) have evolved listening and file swapping for the Digital Age. The Cloud is not new breakthrough technology; rather it is “a continuous, step-by-step evolution.” Larry Ellison agrees with us.

Revolution Failed: The early mainframe TOS/360 operating system was an expensive luxury revolutionary invention, but it died out quickly. Napster, founded in 1999, revolutionized the way that digital media (including music, movies, books, and more) is marketed and sold today. But there wasn’t enough demand.

The Transportation Industry

Evolution Worked: Building out and modernizing traditional rail transit in known areas of dense population to include automated light rail has been successful.

Revolution Failed: High speed rail in the U.S. has been a disaster.

Next time some hyped-up intellectual tries to sell you a urban legend myth — the silly notion that improvements, initiative, intentions, improvising, imagination, intelligent twists, and simple ideas are not “true ‘forward-thinking’ innovation” and not good for business…that dramatic paradigm shifts are always better and “indistinguishable from magic” — give ’em a (gentle) thunk on the head.

It’s time to get back to basic good business, folks. It’s amazing how many companies fail at the basics. And a place where companies consistently fail is commercialization (connecting with customers in the marketplace).

Commercialization is hard; it works best when your company is people-driven and market-driven, rather than technology-driven or “innovation”-driven. But that’s another blog post.

Additional Resources:
– RE:INVENTION’s 10 Principles of Everyday Inventive Companies:
– RE:INVENTION’s 12 C’s of Commercialization Guide:
– RE:INVENTION’s Approach to the Innofrenzy of “Innovation”:
– An Overview of Excluded Middle Law: For those of you who LOVE logical notation.

4 Comments to “Innovation and the Middle of the Road Fallacy”

  1. Interesting discussion!

    My short take on this: it’s not either / or – it needs both incremental evolution as well as more radical revolution in order to drive total innovation. I sympathize with Norman & Verganti’s landscape picture: evolution means climbing up a hill by improvements within a given frame of solutions (limited by a peak). Revolution means exploring new hills by changing the frame (differentiation). Whereas the former usually addresses market majorities, the latter aims at minorities “at the edges” first. The point is: if you don’t explore new hills on the long term you won’t have the opportunity to climb up on the short term.

  2. Kirsten says:

    Neat thoughts – thanks for contributing to the discussion, Ralph-Christian. While we certainly agree that successful companies can manage incremental and bold, disruptive initiatives simultaneously, “innofrenzy” can distract from basic good business and cause companies to lose focus. While we may be able to appreciate a disruptive innovation in retrospect, improvements and evolution can prove to be a more attainable and sustainable mark of differentiation. Disruptive innovation will not liberate American business nor help us to resolve economic instability. Common sense — everyday inventiveness and basic good business — will. Most companies fail at the basics (cashflow, culture, collaboration, commercialization).

    P.S. RE: Norman & Verganti. Point taken. Alternative hypothesis for your consideration: EVOLUTION is mounting challenging hill after hill at an even pace, day after day. REVOLUTION (particularly unmitigated revolution) can deplete energy and resources; akin to climbing a hill comprised of Confectioner’s sugar. Frenetic pacing over unstable, dramatically varied terrain is a lot more challenging than holding a consistent pace over a navigable course. Shades of the acceleration trap:

  3. Thanks Kristin – this topic seems quite important to me.

    I agree with you that companies that have issues to manage their core business may likely be in danger to be distracted by additional disruptive and radical projects. As improvement and incremental change usually account for the majority of most firms’ activities, successful evolution is mandatory to thrive.

    However, I don’t think evoluition is sufficient to succeed for most firms in the future. The pace in most industries accelerates exponentially. Firms need to learn work “ambidextrously” – evolving their core business and prepare for future businesses by building new ventures from the scratch and dealing with more discontinuous change.

    I think avoiding the “Acceleration Trap” is a crucial point. It strongly depends on the leadership abilities in face of increasing pace and managing the required balance above. Saying “no” and continuously redirecting the focus seems indispensable in this regard.

    PS: Thanks for the pointer – interestingly, the first author is located in my area St. Gallen / Switzerland 🙂

  4. Kirsten says:

    You make many excellent points, Ralph. We agree – successful evolution is mandatory to thrive. The only point where we differ is with regard to disruptive technology. Food for thought: new disruptive innovation economics research suggests that companies that EVOLVE AND REFINE an innovation often achieve greater stock value gains than the original disruptor. More: The jury is still out and additional research is warranted, but this preliminary analysis about the economic impact of disruptive innovation has us very intrigued. Thanks again for contributing to a thoughtful conversation!

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