Innovation – Real and Forced

Posted: August 27, 2021 in General Commentary, General SSL Commentary, Uncategorized

The lighting universe has always been a blend of science, art, and practical realities. Since the introduction of LED technology, there has been an explosion of new players coming at lighting from a primarily academic or purely scientific viewpoint. This has created a landslide of potentials and compelling promises of new technologies. It has also created interest in visual sciences in lighting application, including non-visual responses to light, color performance, circadian effect, and now with COVID upon us, the use of light as a sterilization source. Then, there is the whole SMART initiatives, BIM, and the IoT push, on top of the ongoing battle for efficacy and energy efficiency. Layer onto this the discussion of power distribution that includes low voltage DC grids and Power Over Ethernet, not to mention integration of solar and battery powered sub grid integration. Further, are the discussions regarding controls technologies, from occupancy sensing and daylight response to reactive controls that change the character of light in a space based on occupant activities, viewer eye movement, coupled to time of day, daylight availability, and scene presets. We also now have tunable optics to accompany tunable CCT. Just over the horizon are steerable light patterns and progress of OLED technology.

 In addition to all of this technical activity, the plethora of new product providers has been overwhelming. From the flood of low-cost products to those attempting to capitalize on technology, the number of organizations, academic entities, scientific community members, and manufacturers of components and luminaires is now more robust, and confusing, than at any time in artificial Lighting’s existence. Lighting of 2021 resembles lighting of 1921 during the electrification push that converted gas lighting to electric.

Regardless of enthusiastic of inventors and marketers, the fundamentals of successful innovation boils down to one basic reality: If an innovation has no demand to be satisfied, it is an academic exercise, not an innovation at all. You can tell the difference between those pushing an innovation into the market without a specific demand identified, and those who are introducing an innovative product that serves a defined need:

  • Presentations describing the technology as the lead story, showing what it is, how it works, and why it is an important new technical feature, with nebulous, or vague references to generalized application references = Innovations and Inventions concocted by Engineers or Academics, looking for a market to sell to.
  • Presentations that focus on an application need, demand, or emerging problem, that describe how the innovation solves the problem = Innovations based on an identified market need, demand or issue.

Specifically, if an “innovation” cannot be described by first making a need statement, it’s chance of success is minimal, or will take a very long time to realize. By need, I mean a readily identified point of pain or demand, that is not already being met. Or one being addressed poorly using existing approaches.

To illustrate some of the issues facing innovators with no forward plan to produce a solution to a latent need, I borrow these quotes from Chip Coburn’s book “The Change Function”

“There is no change without trauma” Bill Campbell, Untuit Chairman

“Nothing is more difficult than to introduce a new order. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” Niccolo Machiavelli, the Prince

“People hate change…. And that’s because people hate change…. I want to be sure you get my point. People hate change,. They really, really do.” Steve McMenamin, Atlantic Systems Guild. 

To come to terms with driving business growth through innovation, we must overcome the ideas, and singular opinions of individuals and look at what is causing stress, pain, and trauma in the marketplace.

“What makes the process of innovation more predictable? It does not entail learning to predict what individuals might do. Rather, it comes from understanding what forces that act upon the individuals involved in building business – forces that powerfully influence what managers <and decision makers> choose and cannot choose to do.” Clayton Christensen – The Innovators Solution.

This may sound counter to the stylish mantra of focusing on the “Voice of Customer”. The common interpretation of which is that one seeks to gain insight into the future by listening to customers and reacting to their input. Give them what they ask for, literally, and/or ask them what they would have you do for them. While this is most certainly a critical aspect of customer service operations that need to evolve interaction with customers to suit changing demands, it is not as direct a path for innovation leaders.

Product innovation insight comes from a deeper process of listening beyond the literal words of customers, to discover what they are revealing about what is causing them pain, limiting their choices, creating roadblocks, or stopping them from achieving their desired goals. In other words, listening to what they are communicating, not what they are saying. Innovation springs from listening to a range of customers, interpreting where they are struggling or are in need, and gleaning a larger concept that can be addressed with a product or service. Customers are not product designers, inventors, or product strategists; so treating their input literally will more often than not result in duplicating other products already available, over delivering fresh value to satisfy a latent demand.

For example, when lighting customers began talking about the ADA, market innovators investigated the requirements contained to discover that wall sconces needed to extend no further than 4” from the wall surface. Simultaneously, energy codes were clamping down on the use of halogen and incandescent sources. The innovators saw the two requirements as an opportunity to create efficient wall mounted products using compact fluorescent sources, in packages that were less than 4” deep, leading the market to ADA compliant offerings, such as Winona’s Compliance series, introduced in 1990 (designed by this author). The literal VOC reactors waited for customers to ask for ADA compliant sconces of a specific design, so came to the market several years later.  

Innovative leaders learn to combine research and voice of customer data in such a way as to produce a fresh vision of value to the market, that when it is seen, causes the customer to accept and employ it immediately. The best new products are those that hit the mark so well, it causes the customer to respond with “Why has this not been available already? It is exactly what I need”. This imparts of feeling of satisfaction and comfort that will absorb the innovative product immediately, without needing to force it.

Innovators who are constantly finding themselves wondering why the fruit of their efforts are being ignored or taking so long to be absorbed by the market, are those who are attempting to force something to happen that the customer just does not feel needs to happen.

The LED Innovation Early Struggle Example

When LED technology was introduced, the innovators had it figured that the lighting market would instantly see their brilliance, and accept the technology without hesitation. They had no target market in mind, did a horrible job identifying the pain points in the industry, and demonstrated that they had very little understanding of the lighting market as a whole. This led to them failing to learn from the history of one particular light source before it, that also suffered slow adoption – the Compact Fluorescent Lamp, while attacking the one light source that everyone loves – the incandescent lamp. What followed was their repeating all of the same mistakes the CFL innovators. Poor color quality, flicker, short service life, ugly light qualities, and expensive. The CFL lamp became a hated light source almost immediately; surviving only due to the demand of commercial markets needing to meet energy codes and resolve the maintenance issues of incandescent sources in large applications. The LED innovators seemed oblivious to this, and literally repeated history, and today still suffer the reputation of being an ugly light source, with flicker, poor color, blue light polluter, that dims poorly, that is expensive. If it were not for the same evolution of energy codes and standards, and the need to control maintenance costs, LED technology was doomed, and would have been scrapped, along with the CFL, before it even made a mark. Even now, LED retrofit lamps are only partially satisfactory as incandescent lamp replacements, in the mind of lighting customers.

If the LED technologists had done any research to understand the lighting industry and its needs, the first lamp it would have attached as a retrofit and replacement for, would have been the CFL, leaving the incandescent lamp for a later time when the quality, dimming, and cost issues were brought under control. Learning from the CFL mess, LED innovators would have resolved the color acceptance and rendering qualities, and mitigated flicker immediately, even at the cost of efficiency. Instead, they rammed LED technology forward of quality. The result of which, LED technology took 10 years longer to penetrate the lighting market in any meaningful way.

The real advancement of the innovation of solid-state lighting has come from the departure of members of the early technology leaders leaving the market, and inspired lighting leaders picking up the ball to deliver what is now a truly satisfying technology, that is addressing the pain points the market wished to see solved – caused by CFL and HID sources and now linear fluorescent. There is still a lot of forced LED garbage attempting to force its way into the market, but the real innovators are delivering needed high performing, quality lighting tools.

Innovation Goals

The goal of innovation is to grow a company by establishing it as a “first” in the minds of its customers. First to market is not as important as being perceived as the first in mind of the customers being served. Growth comes to organizations that are given the first opportunity to satisfy a requirement, the first in mind when it comes to satisfying needs, first in perceived value (price/quality balance), and the perceived leader (first) in offering easy to apply solutions to design problems.

That said, there is the argument that low price leaders can achieve success by being considered the cheapest, or “first” in price. Some do this well, through volume strategies, and organizational structure that controls costs. Some might even be considered innovative, as they find novel approaches to deliver a desired end-product at a delightful price. However, this level of innovation often demands as much commitment and invested resources as delivering truly new value to solve emerging or recognized pain in a market, begging the question – Why not create new value? Further, the profit margins for price leaders are rarely attractive compared to those offering market leading new value through innovation.

One innovative approach that crosses the line between price leadership and value creative innovation, is in identifying areas where value migration has occurred. Value migration is when products in the market have increased in complexity as marketers fight for share, leaving the market with products delivering more than they want or need. Identifying these over-served markets and innovating new products that are stripped of their inflated add-ons, to offer a unique, simplified, highly valued, well priced end product has led to numerous market successes – from coffee makers to automobiles.

To realize success in any of these demands a solid and very real connection to an identified customer need, pain point, or trauma. Innovation that begins first with a technology brief that rationalizes how it works, over how it resolves specific customer requirements, will suffer a long painful period of slow growth if not outright failure. The aforementioned book “The Change Function” provides an insight into the dynamic “Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn”. In Lighting, there are numerous innovations and technologies emitting light from the fires of burning down.


The concept of innovation seems so simple. Make something cool, let the awed customers sell it for you.

We have all heard the phrase:

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

This leads many to believe that if they invent something they perceive as “a better mousetrap”, that customers will share that impression, and come storming after them. What is interesting, is how easily the context is missed. The critical component of the phrase is that it emerged at a time (late 19th century) when rural and urban customers were fighting a very real trauma – mouse populations exploding, demolishing food stores, and carrying pestilence.

In other words, the phrase cannot be interpreted as: “Build anything you think is great and customers will beat a path to your door.” Nobody cares what you think is great, they only care about solving their own problems, and what they think is great. The art community is where folks create what they wish… and suffer the long, often painful process of finding customers to buy their product (I know this personally).

What is even more interesting, is that the phrase is a misquote. The real quote is:

If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

Ralf Waldo Emerson – Common Fame, 1855


If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woodsthe world will make a beaten path to his door.”

Ralf Waldo Emerson – The Value of Good Work, The Atlanta Constitutional, 1882

Again, the phrase is founded on providing customers an identifiable, superior product to meet an identified need or demand. Innovation that creates a superior product will create demand. Innovation that addresses a widely suffered pain or trauma, that has not yet been solved, will realize an even greater response.

The lighting industry is in a period of chaos and confusion of innovators darting off in millions of directions, from academics, scientists, engineers, marketers, and producers, all attempting to convince us that we need what they created. Of these, only a small percentage are founded on real world latent unsatisfied demand that customers will readily identify with and reward with sales.

I suggest that it is time to take a deep breath, and rethink how much of the noise in the market is real innovation targeted at unfilled demand, and how much is just the result of marketing campaigns creating buzz to draw attention to inventions trying to find a market to serve.

  1. Kerry A. Evanoff says:

    As salient and perhaps more succinct is the Henry Ford quote:

    “If I would have asked people what they wanted,
    they would have said “a faster horse” “

    • kwillmorth says:

      Great quote. And, when he got the price to $295 through production innovation, that is exactly what he delivered to them. A T was roughly the same cost as a horse and carriage, cost less to keep, and would drive for miles without stopping to rest or eat. Further, those living in urban environments where horses were messy, expensive to stable and carriages expensive, he delivered personal transportation that was a latent demand waiting for a solution to satisfy it, and Ford’s trajectory went through the roof.

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