Barriers to Innovation

My last post was an optimistic ode to the endless innovation currently possible, due to the state of technology, entrepreneurship and related support systems. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Today, I want to discuss some sobering limitations that thwart the introduction and uptake of new things.

Several broad categories of barriers to innovation spring to mind:

  • regulation
  • fitting into existing infrastructure
  • consumer habits
  • figuring out who is going to pay
  • short term vs long term thinking
  • benefit twice removed

To illustrate these, I’ll discuss barriers in a couple of hypothetical situations where delivering a solution seems easy.

Consider the challenges to providing real-time transit information. This was inspired by a comment I overheard: “in X,Y and Z city, you know exactly when the next bus will arrive; why can’t we have that here?”

Why indeed?

The technology exists to track a vehicle, create algorithms to integrate the traffic flow, rate of bus progress, passenger demand and weather conditions to estimate and adjust time of arrival for buses and trains. Multiple options exists for providing this information to transit customers, such as pixel boards at stops, a downloadable app or text message service. The information is useful to customers to plan their commutes and use their time wisely. Providing real time updates enhances the customer experience, because it’s more satisfying knowing that your bus will arrive in 14 minutes than not knowing and having it appear after you have fretted and peered into the traffic for 6 (much longer) minutes. Happier customers are repeat customers. So, there’s value to be shared between provider and customer.

Why can’t they have it everywhere?

I can think of a bunch of (hypothetical) reasons.

1. Perhaps the current fleet of vehicles aren’t GPS enabled. Perhaps there is no way of announcing the information at the stops, since all that currently exists are metal signs. (infrastructure issues)

2. The bus drivers union may object to such a system because it tracks driver performance in an unfair way. Or the legal team could be concerned about liability of promising something not under the control of the transit authority. (regulations)

3. How will the new infrastructure be paid for? Through fare increases, increased bank loans, or decreased dividends to shareholders? Although the value can be seen, is it enough to make people reach into their pockets? (who will pay?)

4. The cost to implement this new system will have to be paid long before rider retention can be proven. (short term vs. long term thinking).

To illustrate the other two barriers, I’ll use plastic utensils, especially straws. Much has been made of the earth- and ocean-clogging features of these implements of consumption lately. We need an alternative. Why do we use straws to consume beverages? (This is customer habit.) Innovations that replace the straw must overcome habit. And why do we have plastic utensils, food containers and other disposable, polluting conveniences? Because they are convenient. Eating your meal and cleaning up afterwards are things you will enjoy right now. Pollution of the oceans may only come to your attention years later. And you’re not sure how plastic in the waters effects the environment. It’s difficult to understand the vastness of the consequences of disposables in the sea when you put a single straw in your bubble tea. (benefit twice removed)

Yes, there can be significant barriers to implementing a genius idea that is good for people, business and society as a whole.

And yet, the answer is innovation. Business innovation. Get around the regulations or change them. Show stakeholders short and long term benefits. If there is value in an innovation, someone will be willing to pay. People only cling to their habits if they don’t see the benefit of changing.

Innovation is possible, if you understand the barriers and come up with ways to get over, under or around them.

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