Cue Spinal Tap: Are We Really Innovating Anymore?

By Tom Bugnitz | Oct 12, 2013

In the 1984 mockumentary film This Is Spinal Tap Nigel Tufnel, the lead guitarist of the rock band Spinal Tap (as played by Christopher Guest), is explaining the band’s latest “innovation” to Marty DiBergi, the director of the documentary (played by Rob Reiner). The innovation? The sound control knobs on the band’s amplifiers go to eleven, not just ten.

Marty : Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel : Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty : I don't know.

Nigel : Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty : Put it up to eleven.

Nigel : Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty : Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel : [long pause] These go to eleven.

(See the clip on Youtube at )

Of course, Marty’s right. This isn’t an “innovation”, it’s a small improvement being labeled as an innovative breakthrough.

If only this happened in the movies. But fast-forward 29 years. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, announces a “new product line” from Apple: a “new” iPhone that is the same as the “old” iPhone, except that it is made out of plastic and comes in colors other than black and white. As the Apple web site gushes:

“We even designed the Home screen and wallpaper colors to complement the exterior. As a result, using iPhone is that much more engaging and delightful.”

That’s right…these phones are better because the color makes using them “much more … delightful”. Not because of better sound quality, or breakthrough new functionality, and not even because they are significantly cheaper relative to competitors (which they aren’t). Basically, these phones go to 11.

What has happened throughout the business landscape is that we have consistently devalued the meaning of “innovation”. We are labeling incremental improvements as innovations. Even a simple change is now considered an innovation. The CEO of a major manufacturing organization said to a conference of manufacturing leaders that we all innovate every day, because every small improvement in a manufacturing process is an innovation.

Well, no, it’s not. We’re supposed to be improving every day. We’re supposed to grow and change. That’s smart business, and it’s what we get paid to do. But it’s not innovation.

Innovation is hard to define, but as Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, “I know it when I see it”. Same with innovation. iTunes was innovative; the iPhone 5C is not. Stealth technology? Yes. Winglets, no. Transistors and lasers? Of course. Beer cans with a larger opening? Not so much. We do know what innovation looks like, and we should hold ourselves to a higher standard when claiming we are innovators.

Let’s be finished building amps that go to 11. We need to get back to really innovating, pushing the boundaries, being creative with products and technologies. Let’s make breakthroughs that matter, create new products and services that change the way people do business and live. Innovation drives the economy by creating new markets and new products.

Let’s get back to that, and focus on taking leaps, not just incremental steps