Utilizing a business’ creativity to pursue permanent customer satisfaction despite changes in the marketplace.

Ask any entrepreneur or forward thinking manager about the best qualities a firm can have and chronic innovation will undoubtedly come up.  To be chronically innovative, a company needs to have that one good idea that paves the way towards initial success, but also must be able to reinvent itself and its product over time as its customer”s perception of satisfaction changes.

Innovation is the cornerstone of our entrepreneurial economy.  Without it the status-quo would be all that we ever knew.  No new businesses would be able to squeeze out niches, create new industries, or expand markets.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that every company should be looking for the next nano-technology or non-existent industry.  Instead innovation can be as simple as tweaking an already accepted and successful product.  It can mean adding value to your service with more convenience, or releasing a new product in multiple colors and sizes.  No matter how small your upgrades are, if you don’t make them your competitors will.

The Cow Path Theory

Many large businesses get stuck in a weird state of bureaucratic success.  A paralytic state of holding where a product produced by a big business may be currently successful, but upgrades, tweaks, or new innovations altogether are just too hard, or too risky.  This is called the cow path theory.  It got its name because if a cow finds its way to water one way, it will never be smart or courageous enough to try a new, and potentially more efficient way to that same water again.  It will just continue to walk the same slow route it always has to quench its thirst.  The cow says “hey, this works, why push my luck?”  In the business world it goes more like this: “hey, this works, why get fired?”

One of the biggest examples of The Cow Path Theory in action is the Polaroid company.  For many years they had a product that solved a simple but important problem for consumers: instant picture gratification.  As the years rolled on they continued to produce the same type of film and cameras that gave them initial success.  They spent little to no R&D money on new ways to provide that same instant gratification in a new and technologically advanced way.  Everyone knows what happened next: digital cameras.  Even after the market started to accept these new high-tech gadgets the Polaroid company still refused to invest money in digital camera R & D, thinking that it was either just a fad, or that their current product would just be good enough.  Without new technology, the company was heading towards a cliff at 100 MPH, and it was eventually sold off.  Polaroid was purchased for it’s brand recognition.  All the new owners wanted was to slap the Polaroid brand on digital cameras.  Ironic huh?

Disruptive Innovation Theory

A theory developed by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen epitomizes the problem of not protecting yourself from The Cow Path Theory.  According to his disruptive innovation theory, “your trajectory of product improvement will eventually cross the mainstream trajectory of customer need – limiting your potential future customer base, and opening yourself up for a disruptive innovation.”  What this means is companies must continually stay ahead of customers from an innovation standpoint, or they will ultimately become dissatisfied, and competitors will find a way to satisfy them for you.  The Polaroid company was the first to recognize the consumer demand for instant picture gratification.  It is too bad they were also the first to be wiped out by disruptive innovation because of their lack of continued product modification.

Why is Chronic Innovation Difficult and What Can Be Done About it?

New ideas, new ways of thinking, and new industries represent two things to most employees: more work, and job insecurity.  Salaried wage warriors want nothing else but to do exactly what they are told with minimal effort.  Heck, why not?  They don’t get fired, their kids go to college, and they get two weeks paid vacation.  What is the point of getting up in front of your peers and bosses and saying “what we are doing is silently ruining our company?”   In the real world, going out on a limb can get you fired.  Remember Jerry Maguire?  The movie was based on a true story of a famous sports agent out of Arizona who went out of his way to try and inspire his company towards a new way of thinking.  His extra effort and creativity scared the people above and around him because it wasn’t safe or status-quo.  His idea represented temporary profit losses for the good of their clients and the long-term financial sustainability of the company.

Continual innovation and reinvention is not done by the hands and mind of a single genius in the R & D basement of a company. It requires a change in the firm’s attitude toward entrepreneurial and creative ideas.  By promoting forward and creative thinking across all levels and departments within an organization employees are less apt to settle for the status-quo.  They are motivated to express themselves in ways that stretch the value of of their salary and prevent disruptive innovation.

Changing a firm’s lifestyle and allowing a free-flowing network of new ideas is only the first step.  The firm must develop a bias toward action to legitimately actualize its ideas. To do so the company must test its newfound ideas for feasibility.  Market research, prototypes, pilots, etc. may be time consuming and expensive, but not experimenting can be worse.  Even a tested mistake produces one valuable asset: knowledge on which to build the next great idea.

Don’t forget that new concepts don’t have to be produced internally.  The “connect and develop” method of innovation and idea formation relies on the creative and powerful knowledge-base of your company’s external environment.  To stay ahead of the curve, it’s often necessary to seek out ideas from reputable and forward thinking entities outside your company’s own walls.  Business incubators, consultants, universities, competitors, former employees, mentors, and even your customers are great outlets for “connecting” to ideas.  It is then up to your firm to develop new information into profitable, problem-solving products that change the world and satisfy your customers.


Regardless of methods, your business needs to stay on the cutting edge of innovation.  Consumers are fickle.  Their expectations will mutate in unforeseen ways.  The only way to stay on top of them is to continually ask “what can we do better, and how?”  Asking this question will keep you on the cutting edge of customer satisfaction and leave your competition two steps behind.  Don’t fall into a cow path and accept the status-quo just because it is working now.  The Greenhouse is not a fortune telling website, but we can promise you that what works now, won’t work in the future without constant supervision of chronic improvement.  To do this your firm must adopt a creative and entrepreneurial attitude.  It must not only be open to outside-the-box thinking, but must also promote a system where all employees have the opportunity to contribute to change.  Remember that if you discourage the next Jerry Maguire he just might have to show somebody else the money.