Do Faster Release Cycles Hurt Innovation?

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Have you noticed that there is a constant cycle of new product releases? Organizational quarterly results often drive these releases. Cars, smartphone devices, home automation products, applications all follow this pattern of release cycles. I believe the fear of being left behind is what draws people to upgrades. They don't want to pull out an old generation of a phone or drive an outdated car.

Do faster release cycles hurt innovation?

Fast Release Cycles

In most companies, product managers will make incremental changes while portraying them as revolutionary upgrades. They put minor innovations into releases to get customers to buy the upgraded version nine months later. Companies have made it a standard operating procedure to launch numerous releases of the same product with minor cosmetic changes.

One example of this comes by way of Canon's cameras. Canon has a top-rated camera called the Canon Rebel that came out in 1990. Between 1990 and 2004, Canon released eleven versions of the Rebel. New versions of the product came out in 92′, 93′, 96′, and 99′. The subsequent three releases (2002, 2003, and 2004) went through two releases per year. Here, you can see Canon accelerating releases of the Rebel's next version on an annual basis.

Another example of an accelerating release cycle comes from the Apple iPod. From 2002-2007, there was a new release of the iPod every year. The iPhone updates at a similar rate.

While these are some common examples, these fast release cycles also occur in other industries. They can be attached to fashion, home appliances, automobiles, and various things besides consumer electronics.

Do Faster Release Cycles Hurt Innovation?

Inside organizations, innovators want to create revolutionary products. The pressure to pump up sales comes from shortening release cycles with recorded quarterly profits. Pumping up products becomes a drug that many organizations get hooked on. It conveys a false sense of innovation capability to shareholders and investors.

Organizations that get hung up on fast releases fail to make long-term investments into revolutionary products. They feed into the next release cycle, hurting innovation efforts along the way.

Here is a personal example of a product I was involved in that was negatively affected by fast release cycles. The product was the 2011 HP Touchpad, based on some ongoing tablet work. As the CTO, I pushed for the creation while leading the Palm acquisition's due diligence. After the 2011 HP Touchpad was released, the board of directors discontinued it seven weeks later.

Internal organizational fighting is what led to the ruin of the product. Proponents for traditional product release cycles were firmly anti-new products. They came out in force, preventing dollars from going to new products. They wanted the spending dumped into traditional HP laptop and printer products. These conventional products are low risk but don't add much value to products.

At this time, HP valued good quarterly numbers over long time growth and the transformation of lives. Ultimately, this mindset resulted in the death of many other innovative products.

Advice for Innovation Leaders

As an innovation leader, you need to avoid falling into this trap. Incremental changes to existing products are not innovation but artificial marketing. Following the discontinue of the Touchpad, I announced that I was leaving HP. Dealing with the innovation antibodies in this situation was very frustrating. While this case was extreme, this is often the reality of innovation efforts.

As we have seen, faster release schedules hurt innovation. The law of patience says that innovation takes longer than you think. Trying to force it into a release schedule is incrementalism, not innovation.

The law of resources says that you should not tie your resource commitment to a release or budget cycle. An organization that focuses on accelerating release cycles is not doing proper innovation. As an innovator, it is crucial to fight the urge to be like everyone else.

To know more about release cycles, listen to this week's show: Do Faster Release Cycles Hurt Innovation?

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