New or Different?

Matthew E. May
Matthew E. May

During a recent talk to a group of small business owners on the practice of innovation, someone asked this interesting question:

“Which is better: new or different?”

The question gave me pause—first, because we tend to think of the two terms as almost the same thing, and second, because I had never actually considered forcing the choice.

Is there even such a thing as a new idea anymore? It seems that every new product or service is derivative of something, somewhere. I remember the first time that I saw a vending machine dispensing high-ticket items like mp3 players, cell phone accessories, and digital cameras. I was walking through an airport, and I thought, “That’s new…what clever entrepreneur dreamed that up?” But I soon found out that these machines weren’t really new. The practice had been commonplace in Japan for years. It turns out that vending machines are actually 2000 years old. Greek scientist Hero built a contraption that would release holy water when a coin fell on a lever which opened a valve.

Nearly everything we might think of as new and revolutionary is in reality quite evolutionary. For example, email is a combination of two pre-existing applications: one written for a computer to send messages to itself and the other written to enable two computers to communicate. Or take the TiVo recipe: one part computer, one part TV Guide, one part video recorder—mix and stir.

Is different always a good thing?

Take the case of the recent war between the two different high-definition DVD formatting standards: Sony/Philips BluRay and Toshiba/Hitachi HD-DVD. Both systems took essentially the same basic technological approach; the difference is the technology of the optics. Neither had a clear technological advantage over the other, but Blu-Ray cost more. Consumers wary of equipment obsolescence held off purchasing high-def players, which stalled sales, kept equipment costs high, and nearly halted entirely the widespread adoption of high-definition DVD viewing.

Until the battle was decided, the customer was the ultimate loser. You might think the consumer would be the final arbiter, but that wasn’t the case. BluRay had more major movie studio support. A secondary factor was the Sony Playstation 3 because it uses BluRay. BluRay won the war, but that meant the consumer might be paying more for something that was not clearly better, or at least worth the price of any alleged “betterness.”

So that brings us full to circle to the original question: Which is better: new or different? Neither. The correct answer is found by reversing the question just a bit:

Better is the answer, not part of the question.

And that’s how I responded. Better is the right approach to innovation in general. David Neeleman, former CEO and founder of JetBlue, believes so. His definition of innovation is the most elegant I’ve ever heard:

Innovation is figuring out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.

So don’t worry too too much about new and different. Ask yourself: Is this clearly better than what’s out there now? And if you think about it, that’s a question you should never stop asking.

Because new and different isn’t always better, but better is always new and different.

Matthew May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. See our interview with him on creating a NOT-To-Do list here.

Related in the GBR

Repetition Leads To Innovation by Bruce Hanson, PhD

Manage Innovation through Corporate Venturing by Charles Morrissey, PhD

Review of Getting to Innovation: How Asking the Right Questions Generates Great Ideas Your Company Needs by Edward Rockey, PhD

Author of the article
Matthew May, Supporting Faculty
Matthew May, Supporting Faculty
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