Boring Innovation

This is an issue of my newsletter focusing on the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, particularly remote work, online economy, and cognitive load.
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Real innovation is boring, unsexy and incremental. Only the results are sometimes transformative.

Tech coverage in 2010s was terrible. Mediocre startups claimed to be “game changers” and “disruptive” to the status quo, while in reality their entire business model rested on low interest rates and cheap VC funding.

Venture Capitalists were counting on disruptive change in order to become market leaders in new niches / business models where they could capture exponential growth.

Is there such thing as disruptive innovation?

Disruption” happens when enough of those small innovations unlock use cases previously impossible. Each innovation seems inconsequential, but at some point, a “phase transition” (Safi Bahcall on phase transitions in innovation) happens, and we live in an entirely different world.

  • Smartphones were only possible after 3g became widely accessible
  • Silicon Valley was possible in California because that state prohibits Non-Compete clauses, bolstering competition in knowledge industries

Because the world is a very complex system, you cannot “target” disruption. You can only unlock new potential with boring innovation, and if you are lucky – ride the wave of the subsequent phase transition.

Boring Innovation

So what is boring innovation?

It’s an incremental improvement to a boring piece that is considered “the yuckiest”. It’s something people shy away from, and there is a reason that problem is still unsolved.

  • It most likely requires expertise in 2 areas that rarely go together. The challenges of the future are in the seams of things.
  • Solving it may require some manual steps.
  • It may require reading up on regulations.
  • It may require understanding the business.
  • It may require being an expert on some bizarre corner case.
  • It probably will not be a flashy Conference Talk because your peers will not consider it sexy.

Boring innovation is usually about making things work together

Because transformative change (I’m using this term because I hate “disruption”) only happens in systems, it is triggered by optimizing how things work well together. I expanded on this in Composability is the only game in town.

Here are some examples of boring innovation targeting a laborious and messy processes:

  • Visa created a credit card network to replace cheques, and later PayPal pioneered online payments. Stripe is doing the boring innovation work in simplifying the entirety of commercial infrastructure.
  • AWS presented an alternative to costly on-premises hosting
  • Shipping container is a backbone of the entire modern commerce.

Boring innovation focuses on an acute problem that customers are already aware of. It is easy to monetize, and does not need grandiose claims, press releases, and sponsored articles.

The best boring innovation is a one that everybody eventually depends on, but few consider innovative.

So-Called “Disruption”Boring Innovation
RevolutionEvolution
Discarding previous system, replacing with naive implementationRespect towards complex systems, gradual improvements
Grandiose vague claimsFocused on a single problem
Convoluted business modelsCustomers ready to pay
Overpromise and UnderdeliverReliable
LoudQuiet

Isn’t it time for some boring innovation?

If you have a favorite example of a boring innovation – send it! I would love to curate a collection.

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I write about the psychological and technical aspects of the Internet, focusing on remote work, online economy, and cognitive load. Every monday.

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