Payments Innovation: Aspirins or Vitamins?

It was really amazing to listen and learn from the array of innovators that assembled for the MPD [Payments] Innovation Institute last week. There were many important insights shared about how to find innovation, how get good ideas off the ground and making money, and how to get end users  to switch away from the status quo and adopt new things. We heard from people who are leading the charge to inspire innovation on behalf of their own companies, from those who are trying to enable innovation for both established and emerging players and from entrepreneurs who are trying to, in some cases displace, and in other cases complement those who represent the most tenured players in the business. We also learned how hard innovation is to ignite, no matter how big or well-funded you may be, and how it only looks easy after “ignition” happens. The candid stories of their journeys were both fascinating and humbling.
Common to all of these stories was the thoughtful approach taken to the process of innovation. It reminded me of the old VC saw about funding aspirins and not vitamins, one that was reprised recently in a Fast Company article written by Dan and Chip Heath.
It recounts the story of a would-be author whose agent took a proposal around to a variety of publishers and kept getting turned down. This proposal was for a book written by a man describing pregnancy from the husband’s perspective. The author thought this was a slam-dunk since nothing like it existed, there were millions of men who surely buy it and it filled a void since it would help men understand the variety of issues experienced by women during pregnancy. Well, not one single publisher took the bait. Why? Even though this book, if written, could be useful, men did not (sadly) know they needed it. Heath’s point was that this book was the classic vitamin (nice to have but not essential or compelling) and not an aspirin (something that is essential since it responds to a felt need that people want satisfied now). The book was never published.
All innovators intellectually understand the difference between aspirins and vitamins and the need to respond to the “felt need” in order to ignite adoption and profits. But, sometimes, it is very tempting to try to will vitamins into aspirins, or to rationalize that vitamins are better than aspirins “in this particular situation because ….”
Focusing on aspirins, it turns out according to our group, is easier said than done. Over the two days of the MPD [Payments] Innovation Institute, we heard accounts of being lured by the siren songs of “new shiny technology objects” and efforts to turn them into aspirins (unsuccessfully). We heard the many recollections of vitamins being touted as aspirins by VCs and analysts (PaybyTouch, contactless in the US, anyone??).  We heard the challenges of trying to get support internally for aspirins in the first instance since they tend not to be all that “sexy” and don’t make Boards and CEOs jump up and down with excitement given that there is always more PR spin around vitamins. We heard a lot about the thoughtful approaches that all entrepreneurs take when trying to read the tea leaves and figure out what end users really want and to make decisions about how to innovate for the benefit of their customers and their organizations. We also heard about the struggle to balance the need for innovation with the inertia that comes from having things work pretty well today in the payments world, at least in the US.
In the end, there was consensus about one thing: end users probably don’t always know what they want so don’t ask them about what they’d like to see “innovated.” But they do know what’s not working for them. The key takeaway? If innovation is focused on solving for that one simple thing – what’s not working for end users – there’s no guarantee that the journey to ignition will be successful, but its probability of success is certainly improved.


Karen is the CEO of MPD and has worked extensively with some of the leading players in the payments, B2B and technology sectors to architect, ignite and commercialize innovation. She also serves as a member of the board for several emerging companies in the payments, mobile and technology sectors, including PaySimple. Karen joined fellow Market Platform Dynamics colleagues David Evans, Margaret Weichert and Tim Attinger for the [Payments] Innovation Institute where they led participants in a series of facilitated simulations focused on finding and igniting innovation.Click here to contact Karen Webster


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