The significance of an innovative fast follower

innovationWhat does the word “innovation” mean to you?

An idea? A way of working? Inventing something? Maybe all of those things, or perhaps something else?

It’s a word I’ve been thinking a lot about since taking part in a presentation/discussion on the subject during Synthesio’s European Customer Advisory Council meeting in London last week.

Gathered in a meeting room in the Centre Point tower were representatives of some big brands, all coming together to listen to some interesting ideas, discuss them, and share their own views and experiences.

Full credit to Synthesio for facilitating the gathering in a way that focused on the participants and their interests.

In any case, innovation – the subject of a thought-provoking presentation by Michael Natusch of Cumulus Analytics, that examined the realization of the subject through collaboration.

Michael led a lively discussion on all he presented. One aspect of what he talked about especially caught my attention – the modes of innovation that considers three types of organization approaches, structure or behaviours to the topic.


What struck me was how easy it is to pigeon-hole an organization based on an inaccurate understanding of the key word upon which to base the classification.

It seems to me that some people use the word “innovation” as synonymous with “idea.” Yet that’s only part of the full definition.

This is how I understand “innovation”:

To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and satisfy a specific need. It’s more than just the idea.

I understand that better than the relatively complex Wikipedia explanation.

So under Cumulus Analytics’ assessment, we might  consider a company like Apple as a Research Lab according to the description in the Modes of Innovation graphic above. With a fuller understanding of the word “innovation,” much of what we think of Apple, its history and its product range would fit that label.

Research Lab

  • Develop and manage ideas
  • Sometimes prototype and support early adopters
  • Innovate ideas and focus on emerging markets

It might have been true under Steve Jobs. Today, though, Apple is a different business than it was before under the leadership of Tim Cook. I think Apple has already passed beyond (maybe leap-frogged) being a Factory, a process well underway before Tim Cook’s leadership reign began.


  • Manage and launch new products and services
  • Can be first to market and aim for mass market
  • Innovate processes

So today it might better fit the Fast Follower description.

Fast Follower

  • Copy ideas
  • Produce product/service cheaply
  • Take to market quickly and capitalise on late adopters

Which leads me to an intriguing consideration – are most (every?) innovative businesses today actually Fast Followers? Isn’t every business an iterative one, where successful companies learn from others and build on what has gone before them?

So where we might think a certain company naturally occupies the Research Lab mode, a closer look would reveal it’s really a Fast Follower.

Even Apple – think about their legal fights with Samsung over intellectual property ownership aka patents, that each accuses the other of infringing.

And there are 49 other companies regarded as innovative as presented by Fast Company magazine in its review of The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies (some of which were at Synthesio’s meeting last week).

Each of them is doing interesting work that excites its markets. Undoubtedly we would use the all-embracing “innovation” label. In considering which innovation mode might apply, I say the majority is actually a Fast Follower.

And that’s not a negative thing, far from it – it’s at the heart of business evolution and progress.

I don’t yet know the full answer to my own “intriguing consideration.” And chickens and eggs come to mind. But  I’m working on it.

Am I right, or wrong? Can innovation be sliced and diced so neatly? Or is this simply an intellectual itch to scratch that has no real value in the overall scheme of things? How do you see it?

(Rocket image via The Daily Galaxy)

  • Disclosure: I participated in Synthesio’s European Customer Advisory Council meeting as an invited guest and as a friend of Synthesio. I’m currently experimenting with their Monitoring Dashboards. Recently, Synthesio interviewed me about social media including the subject of influence, a word in current social media usage context I don’t think much of (you’ll have no doubt of that if you read the interview).

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.


    […] The significance of an innovative fast follower What does the word “innovation” mean to you? An idea? A way of working? Inventing something? Maybe all of those things, or perhaps something else? It’s a word I’ve been thin… […]

  2. Fabio De Bernardi (@fabiodebe)

    I was ‘shocked’ and then ‘awed’ by that part of the conversation (and your very good summary) and I guess that Fast Follower doesn’t give full justice to it, because people would normally give ‘follower’ a inherently negative twist, diminishing the merits of a company driving success from other company’s lab work. So perhaps we could spin off ‘Visionaries’ (as in leading the market towards something mainstream) or – perhaps even better – ‘Executioners’ (not as in people taking your life but rather being brilliant at executing an idea) from Fast Followers. So Visionaries/Executioners are the Apple, Google and Facebook of our time (non-technology examples are very welcome) and Fast Followers become the ‘clones’ of a company which has already cracked the market and showed the way to others. Companies which may turn into Executioners one day…

    As you said Neville, it’s not simple to come to a universal conclusion on this, but the consideration is indeed intriguing!

    • Neville Hobson

      I like Visionaires, Fabio, definitely worth seeing where that might fit. I think it has a very different meaning to Fast Followers, though, more akin to the Research Lab area. Maybe there needs to be a fourth element in this matrix.

      And I’m not sure at all about Executioners :)

  3. Social Media Monitoring and Innovation

    […] The scene was set by Dr Michael Natusch of Cumulus Analytics, who talked about how innovation could be driven through collaboration. He described innovation in the context of a number of different organisational models, likening well-known organisations like Apple or Dell to each – and a thought provoking discussion ensued about what camp Apple falls into, gravitating around whether they are seen as first-to-market innovators or ‘fast followers’. Influential blogger and consultant Neville Hobson, who was in attendance, has written an excellent blog about this very issue. […]

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