Obvious Innovations Are Not So Obvious


When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things

– Steve Jobs, Wired Magazine, 1995


When explaining much of the research we do at WHOA, it can often seem to some that we spend considerable time analyzing quite mundane or seemingly obvious phenomena. So why do we bother understanding people’s morning routines (we know they’re hectic), their TV habits (we know they watch the same things over and over again), or how they drive (we know they hate traffic)?  In our experience, it’s exactly in such mundanities that innovative ideas are waiting to be uncovered.

There are several reasons for this.  First, innovation, no matter how amazing and groundbreaking it may seem, often has an element of inevitability to them. In other words, an innovative idea will ALWAYS become obvious sooner or later, it is just a matter of being the one to spot it and execute on it successfully, first. Take the example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Almost simultaneously, both men were traveling around the world studying plant and animal life and while reading the work of Thomas Malthus.  Putting these elements together, the theory of evolution became obvious, and if neither of them had demonstrated it, someone else would have. In fact, the biologist Thomas Huxley supposedly exclaimed after reading Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this. 

Over the course of numerous innovation programs, we have seen this kind of occurrence multiple times.  In some instances, innovation concepts we’ve uncovered and developed during the course of our research have (when not executed in a timely manner) appeared months or years later as new products or services for competitors. Once something becomes “obvious” it is only a matter of time before someone acts.

 The second reason research into the seemingly mundane can be powerful, is that good ideas should have a sense of “obviousness” to them. That is, if it does not seem obvious, then the problem is probably not widely held enough to warrant further development. If consumers are not able to clearly or easily perceive how a concept will fit into their lives, the idea is probably not the right one; at the least it will require a massive marketing effort to educate the customer.  

To get to what is obvious company’s need to make sure they are asking the right questions. There is often a tendency to overcomplicate things under the false assumption that if something is obvious, it is probably not a ripe area for innovation.  Indeed, it is perhaps human nature to ignore that which is front and center or most obvious.  As such, much of what we do does focus on the day to day of people’s lives.  This type of approach helps us to deliver real innovation opportunities on behalf of our clients, by identifying the correct problems to solve, and developing solutions grounded in the customers experience and perspective.

Greg VanderPol