So .. what is a killer innovation?

philmckinney | April 11, 2011


What is a killer innovation

In this blog (and on the podcast), I frequently toss around the term “killer innovation”.  Is this different from a normal innovation?  Yes.  The definition of innovation is:

Innovation is the multi-stage process whereby organizations transform ideas into improved products, service or processes, in order to advance, compete and differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace.

Innovation by itself is not enough.  Everyone is focused on creating innovations.  To win, you need to create killer innovations which I define as:

A killer innovation is a significant and highly profitable departure from current offerings or practices that would be difficult to duplicate.

Significant: Must be easily recognized as being a unique idea/approach that is not just an extension to what already exists today.  This is a lot harder than it looks.  Face it.  Any given innovation is built on the ideas and innovations that came before them.  Rarely is there something that is new.  The key is not to settle for a “me to” idea.

Highly Profitable: There are many ideas, but few that can create entirely new industries/markets with a profit stream that creates growth, jobs economies and wealth.  In many cases, you won’t know if the idea will turn into a killer innovation until after its in the market.  Take Google.  I don’t believe the team truly thought it would grow into the business it has.

Difficult to Duplicate: To create competitive advantage, the innovation must be unique, either with intellectual property or leveraging unique capabilities of the organization, such that others cannot duplicate.  If your idea can be easily duplicated, then any advantage your create will be quickly lost.  One approach to this is speed of innovation.  If you create the core competency to out-pace your competition, the barrier to compete is quite high.

To qualify as a killer innovation, it must satisfy all of the above criteria.  So what are some examples of killer innovations?

  • Google - changed the business model of advertising
  • Amazon - disrupted the economics of selling books
  • Intel - wins by its relentless pace of innovations (tick-tock)
  • Netflix - changed the way the world watches video content
  • W. L. Gore – Created the high performance clothing catagory

What other examples would you give for killer innovations?


  • Mel Norbeck

    Zappos – took customer service / customer care to a whole new level

  • Len Sherman

    From prior post, Zappos may not meet the killer profits criterion. 40% product return rate, high customer service operating costs and rapid expansion to new categories strained liquidity. Investors pushed Hsieh to sell their way put of the problem. We’ll have to see if Amazon will scale back “extreme service” model. Great for customer acquisition. Profits, not so much.

  • David Chassels

    But what about the “innovators dilemma”? It applies to the dominant suppliers like HP “If they adopt or make new products that are simple to implement and easy to use, they will lose their massive streams of services revenue. Their sales models are based on selling big deals. A switch to simplicity will crater their businesses”
    Business Software is long over due for step change to remove the complexity that has left customers in a real “mess”. Forrester CEO George Colony in an exchange in 2010 said: “If we don’t get from IT to BT [Business Technology] we’re going to have more disasters like our present mortgage meltdown. Why? Because IT creates impenetrable systems that human beings can’t manage. BT is about human beings back in control.” In 2008 Bill Gates said “future applications should use only around 10% of the code that is used today” seeing this as “the holy grail of development forever”. Read this White Paper and no doubt ignore as HP focus on profit not the customer – remember that innovators dilemma….. it’s real!

  • Michal Kupczyk

    Sorry Phil,
    …highly profitable…
    …difficult to duplicate…

    Killer innovation is not the domain of big companies.

    There’s fundamental contradiction between the way big companies operate and the way killer innovations are conceived.
    The greatest ideas and innovations come from the individuals who are not comfortable with the situation they are in, who can see the problems to be solved where others do accept the effort to overcome these as part of life. People who fit big structures are not of that type.
    So to me all the big players are limited to continous, small step innovation pushed from the board, and all they can do is purchase the ‘killer innovation’ when it seeks the investor.

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