Harper Reed: Innovation Is Worthless

During his Interop keynote, Harper Reed quotes Kanye West for product development advice.
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At Interop in Las Vegas on Thursday, Harper Reed, CEO of mobile commerce company Modest and former CTO at President Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago, took aim at Silicon Valley's most cherished concept: innovation.

The tech industry tends to overlook almost any excess if it results in innovation, because it's the foundation of empires. Tempermental founder, worker exploitation, environmental damage, selling tools to tyrants? But look at that shiny new thing!

Or so it may seem. Reed, however, put innovation in its place. Among his rules for product development, there's one that argues against innovation, at least as a destination.

Singer Kanye West, according to Reed, said in an interview, "Innovation gets almost too much credit in a way. There's no money in innovation. The money is in the repetition."

To anyone in the entertainment industry, this may be obvious. One only need look at Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron to recognize that business is about repetition. But the technology industry doesn't celebrate repetition in the same way -- standards and compatibility maybe, but not repetition. Changing the world doesn't fit with business as usual.

What matters, said Reed, is being able to repeat something over and over. "Test, repeat, weaponize," he said.

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There's some truth to that, but innovation has to happen too. Apple wouldn't get to sell the iPhone 6 if it hadn't created the first iPhone.

There were other rules too: Give people what they want quickly; invest in user experience; don't be clever (but be straightforward); focus on the signal-to-noise ratio; and create opportunities for the user to be delighted.

Reed offered an anecdote about his experience working on the 2012 Obama campaign in a story that suggests some limits to the value of repetition.

Recounting how his email team would place bets on which email subject line would get the best response, Reed said no one ever got it right all the time. That's why it's important to use testing and iterative development to guide your brand, he said.

Reed observed that the President, being very presidential, did not say, "Hey." Yet when the campaign tested "Hey" in a fundraising email, it did well.

"It made so much money, suddenly, the President said 'Hey,'" Reed said.

Dare to repeat yourself, until you learn better. And that may look a lot like innovation.