Harper Reed: Innovation Is Worthless

During his Interop keynote, Harper Reed quotes Kanye West for product development advice.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

April 30, 2015

2 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: Thomas Claburn)</p>

10 Management Books Every CIO Should Read

10 Management Books Every CIO Should Read

10 Management Books Every CIO Should Read (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

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.

[Read what IT can learn from the Boston Red Sox.]

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.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights