A Better Mousetrap

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One of the best known quotes about innovation is attributed to the 19th Century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

There is some truth to this. Improvements to everyday objects do drive purchases. Many people upgrade to a new phone every couple of years because the screen, camera and battery are an improvement on the last one.

But better products do not always win.

During the mid-1970s two competing videotape formats were launched – Betamax, which was developed by Sony, and VHS, which was created by their great rivals JVC.

Betamax offered a superior picture and better sound.

But VHS came to win the battle of formats. JVC focused on low price and on relationships with the nascent video rental market – films were available first on VHS.

Better mousetraps often fail to gain commercial success because so many other factors are at play. Price, availability and marketing are often more important than quality alone.

This helps explain why Beats outsell better sounding headphones, why so many people choose to drink coffee in Starbucks instead of independent cafés, and why Amazon is coming to dominate retailing so completely.

Adopting something new can also be perceived to be more hassle than it is worth.

In business middle managers are often resistant to change because they fear they have more to lose in making a bad decision than they have to gain by making a good one.

This can make it incredibly difficult to successfully launch innovative new products aimed at large companies.

“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM,” was a decades-long corporate maxim in praise of playing it safe.

And then there is the simple fact that sometimes we do not necessarily want the best.

The U.S. Patent Office has granted over four thousand patents for better mousetraps; only twenty ever made it into production.

Growing up I remember one morning noticing the cheese was missing from a mousetrap my Dad had set on the kitchen floor.

On closer inspection I realised the spring trap was set to the least sensitive position.

“Well,” my Dad said with a smile. “You have to give them a chance.”

This post was also published in the Lancashire Evening Post, Blackpool Gazette and Lancaster Guardian as part of a weekly column.

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