Why Facebook is So Innovative

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When it comes to social networking, Facebook leads the pack. But why? Often times, like with the recent release of their “Kickstarter-like” functionality for non-profits, they are late to the market with features. Smaller, nimbler companies often beat them to the punch.

But does that mean that Facebook isn’t being innovative?

In many ways, we incorrectly assume that to be innovative means to do something that no one else has done (some accuse Facebook, when they first started, of copying social media rivals). But that is really “being inventive.” Innovation, on the other hand, encompasses invention because innovation assumes both creating new things as well as improving on things that have already been created; to change elements or features of products and services to make them better. Consider the Swiss Army Knife. The pocket knife existed for a long time prior to the Swiss Army Knife (originally dubbed the Swiss Solider Knife). But Victorinox innovated off the tried-and-true design by incorporating more tools into the handle (specifically meeting demands by the Swiss army that their soldiers be able to dismantle their rifles which required a screwdriver). And dozens, if not hundreds, of companies have come afterwards with their own re-imagining of the Swiss Army Knife. Innovation stacked on top of innovation all pointing back to the original pocket knife invention.

In fact, did you know that the U.S. Patent office awards patents for both brand new inventions and improvements to existing inventions (i.e., innovation)?

Facebook sees products in the market and imagines how they can be better, how they can integrate with the Facebook platform, how they can transform the social media experience. And that is what makes Facebook so innovative. Not by inventing new things, but by examining successful products in the market and re-imagining their features in light of what they know already works in the Facebook platform. Sometimes what appears as just a copy has been uniquely re-designed to work within the social media architecture they’ve already created, making it very innovative within their industry.

Invention, then, is a process of innovation.

What can you do to be more innovative?

  • Stop equating innovation with invention. You might be looking for The Next Big Thing (TNBT), wracking your brain to find a place in the market that someone else hasn’t touched; virgin ground for a new invention. But, if you take the Facebook route, that is not the only way to be innovative. Look at what’s already been created in the space that interests you or where your company operates and see how you can improve upon the products, services, or features already in play and then integrate those improvements into your own offerings (or the offering you want to create).
  • Think improvement, not just newness. In many cases, trying to think of something brand new will often result in examining what’s already been done. For example, let’s say you want to figure out a better way to mow the grass. That means taking a hard look at lawn mowers and how they work as well as what’s involved in operating them (i.e., a person). Well, rather than trying to re-invent how the lawn mower operates (although maybe you come up with a more efficient blade system), maybe you re-imagine what’s involved in operating them and remove the person. Voila! An automated, grass-cutting robot like iRobot’s Roomba.
  • Stop brainstorming and start creating. Many people get stuck in “invention mode” by trying to capture the perfect feature. But true innovation often involves layers of change. If you want to be more innovative, don’t try to tackle all the layers at once. Look for how you can make incremental improvements through small innovations rather than a single large one.

And, by trying to be more innovative, by looking at what you can improve or make better rather than what you can make new, you can actually stumble into a true invention.

Is Facebook very inventive? In some ways, yes they are (they have invented some very cool big data technologies). But in many ways, they are more innovative than inventive, looking for ways to transform existing technologies into features and services that will make its social network more competitive and, ultimately, more useful.

How are you being innovative? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Jason Thibeault is the senior director of marketing strategy for Limelight Networks. In this role he helps direct Limelight’s corporate messaging and positioning, develops whitepapers and e-books, blogs, and evangelizes the Limelight solution offering to audiences around the world. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine Honors Program and a M.A. in English, with distinction, from California State University, Northridge. Jason is the co-author of the marketing thought-leadership book Recommend This! Delivering Digital Experiences People Want to Share (Wiley), the middle-reader chapter series Marmalade (Dime Novel Books), and rethinkeverythingblog.com. He is an inventor on a number of technical patents with Limelight Networks. Follow him on twitter @_jasonthibeault.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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