Remember the first time you held an iPhone or an iPod? Perhaps you’ve test-driven a Tesla. There’s something electric about it –– no pun intended. Our first encounters with innovative new products are intoxicating. It’s almost primal, the sensation of experiencing a new product you know will be life changing. Yet the line between innovation and product development can be blurry. Is altering something that has long existed truly innovative? After all, there were phones, music players, and electric cars long before Mr. Jobs and Mr. Musk got their hands on them. Yet their influence almost erased their product’s predecessors from our memory. So what are the distinctions between innovation and product development? Why does it matter?
First there was an idea. Someone, somewhere imagined a carriage powered by an engine instead of a horse. Unfortunately, creators often craft products with little thought to the marketplace, to the cost to produce, and exactly why their creations are better than what’s already available. Henry Ford made improvements to the automobile but his real innovation was developing a moving assembly line that made mass production possible. This greatly lowered the costs of cars –– which made them a popular alternative to steeds rather than the toys for the rich. Outdoor electric arc lights and even lightbulbs were around long before Thomas Edison invented the first incandescent light –– a practical invention that stayed lit for many hours but also required the invention of numerous components to facilitate it like light switches, electric meters, and wiring. Maybe that’s why cartoons show a lightbulb over a character’s head whenever they get a great idea.
So, innovation begins in the mind. In a company, it is fueled by research and development –– along with the funds corporations devote to it. However, as Khoj Lab founder Shilpi Kumar points out, innovation isn’t just about creating products because “[I]iInnovation is not invention, it is streamlining the flow of ideas across the organization, of which R&D is just a part.” This can’t happen in a silo. From its early stages, innovators must consider the marketplace. They have to have an idea of what the final product will cost and how it can be profitably delivered to customers. This is where product development comes in. “The development portion comes after the research and is the act of turning the discovered science into a useful product that the company can market and sell,” explains Investopedia.
Developing the Product
Product development transforms the notions of innovators into marketable goods. Although innovation and product development can work hand in hand, the challenge often comes when the product development team realizes the creator’s vision is flawed. It may be an idea that looked great on paper but is dangerous or overly complicated in the real world. This is where tension can arise –– especially in smaller businesses and ones with powerful founders. Think of Musk and the Falcon Wing doors on his Model X –– which led to so many customer complaints that Tesla is suing the original door manufacturer. Careful and competent product development is crucial to a product’s success. Of course, to use the Apple and Steve Jobs example, innovation and product development can overlap. In fact, all innovation and product development overlaps.
Besides ushering brand new products to the marketplace, product development can often make tweaks that increase a company’s market share. Adding vanilla or cherry flavorings to Coca-Cola wasn’t a huge innovation yet it expanded the company’s base of customers. Where you fit depends on whether you want to create products or refine them, discuss new products or help sell them.
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