Have you ever wondered why DVDs come in such large (mostly empty) cases? You might think it would have been smarter to package them in the same cases that CDs and software come in – after all, the discs are the same size. So what’s the reason?

Think back to the product that DVDs replaced: the clunky VHS cassette. Now think of all the display and storage systems that retailers and marketers around the planet built to accommodate said VHS. Think of all those shelves in all those shops, all designed to the exact same specifications.

Now imagine all those VHS boxes replaced with teeny CD cases to create a display that looks like a great big smile with not enough teeth. The new technology meant that either retailers had to rethink their store… or the manufacturers had to make something to fit where the old thing used to be.

It’s an old design dilemma that only ever ends one way: the new way has to plug into the old.

No matter how brilliantly inventive and ground-breaking the very next electronic gadget might be, it’s guaranteed to come with a power cable that fits into the exact same wall socket as every other gadget ever invented. Ok, so maybe that’s unoriginal. But that’s what you have to do if want to connect to where the power is.

See, innovation is about Making Things Better (which everybody loves the idea of) but that means Making Things Different (which is where most people lose enthusiasm). Ultimately we’d prefer our innovators to Make Things Better by Making Everybody Else’s Things Different and Leaving My Damn Things Just The Way They Were.

Imagine you’ve come up with a revolutionary new concept in private transport: The HoverPod. Unlike any vehicle on the road, it requires an exciting but yet unknown energy source and demands such a radical new approach to driving that everyone will need to be retrained… by instructors who will also have to be retrained. Actually, we’ll need a completely new system of qualifying mechanics and salespeople and factory workers… come to think of it, we’ll need to rethink the factories as well…

You see the problem. We’ve built our industries (and for that matter, our lives) around certain products and processes and we haven’t left much room for anything radically new. Sure, we’ll probably all want a HoverPod, but only if it fits snugly in the space where our old car used to be. That’s not to say you can’t stretch that space a little bit sometimes, but push the boundary too far and it will shove you back.

(Remember Betamax? The Sony video format was far superior to VHS but could only record an hour’s worth of movie. As Maxwell Smart used to say; ‘missed it by that much’).

Marketing people are fond of telling innovators that their idea won’t succeed unless it fills a specific gap in the market; what they don’t often tell them is just how snug that fit has to be.

Want to get your idea into the world? Make sure you know the space people want it to fill.

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Written by Jason Clarke

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Celebrated author, adventurer, gold medal Olympian and popular TV chef; Jason is none of these things. He is, however, one of the most sought-after creative minds in the country. As founder of Minds at Work, he’s helped people ‘think again’ since the end of the last century, working with clients across Australia in virtually every industry and government sector on issues ranging from creativity and trouble shooting to culture change and leadership.