Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Building Trains or Train Tracks

As many of you know I am currently investing much of my energy in creating innovation around publishing - specifically eBooks. This is a market that is changing dramatically each and every day. I call it the Wild West of book publishing. So in a space as in flux as publishing, how do you innovate intentionally?

Well, I got a key insight wen reading Kristin Butler's post on 7 Platforms that are Changing Publishing. This article is a must read even if you are not involved in publishing because of the creative innovations it highlights. So here is my thought for the day. When you are in a dynamic and changing field your innovation will either change the train or the train tracks. (Most of the innovations in the article are train innovations.)

If your innovation changes the train tracks, you are talking about the infrastructure that the whole new industry is riding on. In the eBook world the train tracks are the platforms (ie Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Google) that allow you to buy, access and read your books.

If your innovation changes the train, you are talking about products and services that ride on that infrastructure and utilize it to deliver things to customers at their point of need. In the eBook world a great example (listed in the article I mentioned above) is The Domino Project - an innovative publishing effort spearheaded by Seth Godin and delivered via Amazon's system.

As I considered this reality, it became clear that building train tracks is hard work. And beyond the huge time and money it takes, you have to win or you are relegated to the junk pile. When trains were a new innovation, there were different widths for train tracks in various parts of the world. But sooner or later most of those variations disappeared because people needed to get goods everywhere and various sizes and types of tracks were not a good idea (unless you wanted to keep people out).

Because of this, the players that can afford to innovate at the train track level will be very few and will involve incredible risk, investment and mass adoption. The area of innovation with much more room for creativity and the ability to build niche audiences is in the work of building trains. Once the train tracks are set, you can build all kinds of trains. Trains for circus animals . . . trains for coal . . . trains for people. The potential is only limited by the demands of those wanting to use that infrastructure.

This means that if you don't want to risk it all to set the standard for the train tracks you can still be a key part of the innovation in your industry. You can identify a group of people who want to use that infrastructure and build a train that will serve them well.

Even though the idea of building the infrastructure is a sexy one, the implementation is brutal with many harrowing stops and turns. But train building, while difficult and challenging, is much more likely to lead to success.

Can you identify the train tracks and trains in your area of innovation? What will be your focus?

No comments: