Enough with these tired, copycat innovations

August 8, 2014

Companies need the courage to take chances and do something different. (iStock)

Have you noticed how certain industries move together in unison?  For example, one airline introduces a particular service and every other airline immediately follows, such as with the launch of their mobile apps. I would love to see far more dispersed innovation rather than everyone moving exactly in the same direction.

Why are companies in various sectors unwilling to be bold and step outside of the box?  One exception to this rule is  Delta Innovation Class, alerting clients when experts are on a flight who will be giving talks and can network. Bravo, Delta.

The most recent example of this copycat phenomenon is how the hotel industry is thinking of and deploying technology. Simple ideas such as using your smartphone to open your door, or to see which rooms are available have been discussed for years and are now being offered as “new technologies.” Seriously, this is basic functionality. Just because hotels are offering these features now, does not make them new or distinguished. They are woefully late to the game.

Starwood announced that smartphones are to be used instead of card keys a few months ago, and Hilton is now following suit. Before you know it, every hotel chain will be doing exactly the same thing. I’m hesitant to call these true innovations, as they are new but not game-changing.

Copycat innovation forces many or all in a sector (in this case hotels) to improve and add new features to their offerings. I call this the “better-than-nothing” strategy.

But it stifles the cutting edge, the competitiveness and bold nature of break-out innovation. It lowers the bar of advanced technologies being offered as everyone is playing safe. This is the reason that the meaningful rate of innovation in sectors such as hotels has been minimal over the last few decades. Eventually, every hotel becomes the same as the others. It’s nothing new, and what drives business to each hotel is the attractiveness of loyalty programs.  The major negative is that borrowed innovations do not draw new members and becomes a stale “me-too” strategy.

Here is the sweet irony: we, the millions of loyal airline and hotel loyalty members, would love to see totally innovative offerings and experimental ideas rolled out for us to test! We live in a world where we are used to agile and “test-it-out-and-see-if-it-sticks” experimentation rather than rigid, old-school thinking. Experiment with us — hotels should give their customers the chance to show how excited and responsive they can be.

Don’t wait until everything is sorted out and perfected behind closed doors — throw it at your customers now. They can take it. The flexible app-mentality will make them willing and eager to try new ideas, give the hotels or airlines feedback and improve together. Don’t hold back! The crazier the better.

And please, don’t all do the same thing at the same time. Be original and daring. Having spoken to brilliant minds at many of the top hotels and airlines around the world, I can confirm that there are hundreds of great ideas out there, but everyone is playing it safe as a fear of failure looms.

Then suddenly, in comes AirBnB.  It isn’t beholden to the alleged “innovations” of today’s hotel industry, and has gone on to remarkable success.

It is my firm belief that traditional sectors such as hospitality and transportation, including but not limited to hotels and airlines, can be by far bolder and more innovative than they are allowing themselves to be today. Failure to achieve success is perfectly accepted and highly respected when used as an opportunity to grow! It is totally okay to try new things, fail, improve, iterate and try again. Failure while trying is a critical part of success. So, why not experiment with us much more instead of being held back by the copycat innovation mentality?

Linda Bernardi is the chief innovation officer at IBM focused on cloud and the Internet of things. A serial entrepreneur, investor and public speaker, she is focused on transforming global companies. She authored Provoke, which discusses why disruption is necessary for global innovation. She previously founded and served as CEO of ConnecTerra.
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