Understanding Snowflakes, Wheels, And Innovation

The “good old days” is often couched within hyperbolic context, but to be certain, the past is often filled with lessons that shouldn’t be forgotten. When it comes to innovation and the internet, there’s plenty to reflect upon.

In the early days of the web—after the furious rounds of initial R&D within academia and government —the evolution towards a commercial medium in the mid-to-late 90’s was fueled by Fortune 500 brands outsourcing work to agencies (an approach that has undoubtedly changed since). Out of necessity, this collection of early adopters and misfit surfers made development decisions around architecture, code, user interface, and the resulting experience as if each production were an individual snowflake with unique DNA.

Clients didn’t make a collective nor conscious bottom-line decision to fund the evolution of the web by paying outside the margins for these web sites, yet known to all involved was that early adoption came at a premium, which simultaneously funded deeper explorations, broader advancements, and eventual best practices leading to price stabilization.

This is how “the early days” of any industry works; the web was no different.

With a market ripe for the infusion of information sites, retrieval services, web applications, etc. across a wide array of industries, the vast majority of businesses had little option but to strategically position themselves in this new-fangled online space with innovation as a point of differentiation.

That’s not to say that teams didn’t have domain specific KPI’s to reach with their initiatives, or that they weren’t doing their best to streamline processes to reach this unknown online market sooner, but without the modern day checks and balances of industry best practices and data-driven analytics—hell, without a wheel to point to in a “don’t reinvent the wheel” conversation that we now take for granted—operational efficiencies couldn’t be a primary component of SOP.

Innovation was considered a business line item, and over time and across a myriad of funded projects, it proved to be a solid investment for all involved— in particular for the medium itself.

The web rapidly evolved from an academic tool with a high bar of entry to supporting a wealth of business and interaction models ranging from entertainment to e-commerce to personal publishing, all by the turn of the century, quickly lowering the bar of entry to people with a wide-range of tech savviness. Fast following the first wave of commercial investment online, retail, productivity, social, and narrative interaction models advanced with the advent of Flash, Ajax, and compression algorithms—to name a few—leading to entirely new business models centered around embedded video and audio, and input/output models rendered through asynchronous displays.

Snowflakes evolved into snowstorms.

The Patterns & Innovation Paradox

Fast-forward to 2016, well beyond the concoction of online transparency and personal branding that fueled a rocket ship to deliver billions of “consumers” to the walled gardens of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and similar services, and disruption continued on. Business products shifted from singular software expressions into platform independent, collaborative, decentralized, cloud-based productivity suites. Age-old business models, such as the newspaper industry, have been completely deconstructed into relatively weaker versions of themselves. Hotels are now run by home-owners; personal taxi services based on location convergence is now a reality.

The evolution of technology-based connectivity has placed us knee deep in the age of the “internet of things” which is rapidly becoming the “experience of things.”

Environmental objects — from wearables to appliances to vehicles — have been added to the fray when innovating how we intelligently sell, make, control, deliver, and express stuff based on cloud computing and user interactions. The very notion of the web has broadened and deepened to feed experiences far beyond the browser into the contextual nature of smartphones that strive to understand what we deem to be important, the nature of our physical surroundings, and how to iteratively present actionable interactions of commerce, productivity, entertainment, and more.

You know all this; you’ve experienced it firsthand as either a user, a creator, or both. I only present this historical reflection to contextualize the very notion of innovation, which until recently was considered a rather simplistic construct within the walls of business:

The classic definition on disruptive innovation has two main parts. One is the existence of organisations that have the power and resources to scale a new but untested technology; the second is that incumbent organisations focus on the current and near term needs of their existing clients. That means they spend their resources on responding to these with incremental or sustaining innovations rather than being radical.

Haydn Shaughnessy

While that definition is still valid, the difference today is similar to the notion driving Moore’s Law; as we move forward with technology the ability to rapidly innovate and disrupt increases as the foundational elements of “web” constructs evolve, broaden, and deepen.

Aside from a handful of visionary souls, a technologist in 1995 couldn’t fathom the sheer number of established patterns available to build upon today.

From the macro of successful business and interaction models across a wide array of industries to the micro of architectural, development, and design patterns—all commoditized in different flavors as services; from open source to cloud solutions, from Google Material Design to Wordpress Themes—the barrier to entry for a competitive product doesn’t rely on the innovative design and development repetitions as it once did.

To an unseasoned tech talent, that may sound like a blueprint to circumvent their active role in innovation—a “non-challenging” position to find oneself if you have expectations greater than simply getting paid for services rendered. But to executives such an environment rings as an opportunity to actually innovate deeper, faster, and less expensive via strategic plays—across business, design, and development—rather than relying solely on bottom-up advancements.

Herein lies the paradox:

Persistent direction to avoid reinventing the proverbial wheel isn’t necessarily the mark of a conservative executive team. Of course, “wheels” need to be slashed at times, even replaced in order to move forward as desired, but executives can now tread innovative waters by simply picking and choosing key spots to venture outside of well tread paths.

Product designers, researchers, and developers must understand the nuance in such a value equation, and discover the opportunities for innovation within the modern day, rich ecosystem of established and commodified patterns… or finding happiness with our work will always be a difficult pursuit.

When one realizes that the best approach to craft a snowflake is by first leveraging the tools and ingredients already understood—cold water, a power washer, and < 0°C—greater possibilities begin to reveal themselves.