The Innovator’s Long Nose

Peter Jones Innovation

Bill Buxton, Toronto’s-own design luminary and Microsoft principal scientist, writes up a first thesis on The Long Nose of Innovation in the current Business Week.

My belief is there is a mirror-image of the long tail that is equally important to those wanting to understand the process of innovation. It states that the bulk of innovation behind the latest “wow” moment (multi-touch on the iPhone, for example) is also low-amplitude and takes place over a long period—but well before the “new” idea has become generally known, much less reached the tipping point. It is what I call The Long Nose of Innovation.

Such clarity of concept. The mirror-image of Long Tail is intriguing here, since the Long Tail is largely about adoption and deep reach across expanded markets. The Long Nose idea suggests we don’t hit the sweet spot overnight. This is certainly true for many technological innovations – I can think of a few startups that might be today’s winners is they had a long range plan that allowed for a 10-year pop horizon. (Remember Firefly?) Wouldn’t it be good to predict which classes of systems so that we might set our strategic sights toward reality?

This seems similar in diffusion process to the dreaded idea of incremental innovation, (which I believe is a powerful competitive force). Incremental has been out of favor in recent years mainly due to its lukewarm appeal in a hypercompetitive Web-saturated marketplace. You will find few executives willing to stake their jobs on incremental innovation when they can drive and demand “disruptive innovation,” and have it now – or at least within the year. It takes an organization to innovate (as in “bring ideas to market.”) Regardless of soundness of theory, innovation is visible to us from the marketplace results, and marketplace dynamics have a lot to do with the uptake of incrementally developed or rapid breakthroughs.

I love the conclusioon (not to steal thunder, its a short article and you should be reading it instead of myblog about it):

Instead, perhaps we might focus on developing a more balanced approach to innovation—one where at least as much investment and prestige is accorded to those who focus on the process of refinement and augmentation as to those who came up with the initial creation.

To my mind, at least, those who can shorten the nose by 10% to 20% make at least as great a contribution as those who had the initial idea. And if nothing else, long noses are great for sniffing out those great ideas sitting there neglected, just waiting to be exploited.

Perhaps there are several different innovation diffusion curves, depending on the case studies we use to describe their variations. Depending on how we define innovation , the curves may differ. Some innovations have significant impact, but are infrastructural – so they have long curves and sharp breaks when they finally break through. Others are more market-based, as maybe the mouse could be. As one writer said, Doug’s mouse was good enough in the 1960’s. But with no PC market, no need for mainframe mouse. (It’s not the innovation’s fault the cycle was so long!) This is a really valuable contribution.