Innovation Management and the better Mousetrap. A critical evaluation of Ralph Emmerson's work with reference to the complexity of today’s business environment

Essay, 2014

21 Pages, Grade: 81%













II Content

1 Introduction

“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door“

This famous statement coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1855) circumscribes metaphorically that superior products will attract the costumers with no need of marketing or other involvement in order to sell (Kassinger, 2002; Orr, 2012). Irrespective of the inventor’s track of record or degree of popularity, people will hustle over to the inventor in order to buy the product. (Kassinger, 2002)

This report will critically evaluate the validity of Emerson’s statement especially taking into account the highly dynamic and complexity of today’s business environment (Seifert and Langenberg, 2011). Moreover the process of innovation incorporating a close analysis in terms of types of inventions, implementation processes and the sig- nificance of entrepreneurship and technology transfer will be considered when evalu- ating Emerson’s statement.

2 Inventions

When evaluating Emerson’s statement it is crucial incorporating the process of invention into the analysis and having a precise look at inventions, which support and discredit his statement determining, if and why those specific inventions made a beaten path for the world to the inventor’s door.

Having invented the ‘Loom Bands’ - coloured bands that can be twisted to bracelets - in 2011, Cheong Choon Ng now owns a £80 million worth business since ‘Learning Express Toys’ stocked his product in 2012 for the first time (Coles, 2014). His track of success can be summarised as follows:

At the time when Cheong Choon Ng noticed his children weaving elastic bands over their fingers to create bracelets, he had to realize that his fingers were too big to make his own bracelet (Coles, 2014). Adopting the idea of a ‘loom’, a technology known since the 15th Century from clothing trade, he used pins and a wooden stab to achieve equal or even better results than his two daughters. Developing a plastic version of the loom bands and setting up a business manufacturing them, Ng invest- ed only $10.000 in his business (Coles, 2014). Richard Gottlieb, founder of Global Toys Consultants, states that there was no need to advertise this product as it started out in a specific geographical location and just spread from there driven by the ‘social network of the playground’ (Parkinson, 2014). Hence, it credits Emerson’s statement as the world made a beaten path to his door without any further involvement needed. Just its superiority led to success.

As Napier-Munn (1997) defines the process of invention as an intensely human activ- ity, which demands creativity, obsession, intuition, technical competence and practi- cal nous in varying degrees successfully leading to a new product, all of these men- tioned aspects can be observed taking into account Ng’s story of success (Clifford, 2014). Moreover Ng’s ‘Loom Bands’ expose an innovation according to Stokes (2006) defining an innovation as an invention being successfully proofed and adopt- ed by the market.

In contrast to Ng’s paradigm, the history of innovations also exposes a numerous variety of inventions, which failed to be successful even though they objectively provide important advantages for example the user-optimised Dvorak keyboard being defeated by the now standard QWERTY keyboard or VHS (introduced by Sony) having achieved a huge commercial success notwithstanding that Betamax (introduced by JVC) was superior in terms of higher resolution, better sound quality and a higher frame stability (Kohles, 2013; Cusumano et al., 1987).

Furthermore Engelbart failed to succeed a commercial success when he invented the first computer mouse in 1968 at Menlo Park (Forbes, 2010). Even though the people where amazed by Engelbart demonstrating his novel mouse linked to a computer writing, deleting, reshuffling pieces of text, there was no market need for this product as computers were not available to the public until Apple sold the first Macintosh in 1884 (Forbes, 2010). It was then, when the invention of the mouse led to commercial success, however the original inventor could not benefit from it.

3 Incremental and radical Innovations

The failed market implementation of the computer mouse raises the question why the original inventor could not achieve commercial success, as it was apparently superior to previous technologies taking into account Emerson’s statement.

In order to answer this question it is relevant to introduce the innovation life cycle model of Utterback and Abernathy (1994). The axis of abscissae differentiates the phases of fluidity, transition and specification whereas the ordinate describes the rate of major innovation.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Utterback-Abernathy model (Utterback, 1994)

The fluid phase is characterised by a high emphasis of innovation in terms of exploration and uncertainty, which is typical for ‘radical innovations’ defined by Bessant et al. (2011) as “do- ing something completely different” (Bessant et al., 2013, p. 253). When Engelbart radically invented the first computer mouse in 1968 he stepped in the fluid phase (red ellipse) and had to face higher risks trying to enter a market, which actually was not there as computers were not available to the public (Bessant et al., 2011; Forbes, 2010; The Innovation Complex, 2011). However, adapting and improving Engelbart’s idea, Apple achieved to establish the computer mouse in the market in combination with the Macintosh about two decades later and achieved a huge commercial success (Johnson, 1998). Apple’s mouse can be defined as incremental innovation following the concept of ‘do what we do but better’ by slightly im- proving the product (Bessant et al., 2011). Following Utterback and Abernathy’s life cycle model, Apple implemented the computer mouse at the stage of specification. At this stage risks are lower and the product is justified to the market needs, which finally led to commercial success (Bessant et al., 2011).

In respect to Emerson’s statement the innovation life cycle model incorporating the example of Engelbart’s computer mouse underlines, that inventing a better product is not enough to make a beaten path to the inventor’s door. In fact it is essential taking into account higher risks of radical innovations and a high level of uncertainty, which especially can be found at the fluid phase of product and process innovation (Aarikka-Stenroos et al., 2014). Furthermore according to Lynn et al. (1996), failing to commercialise a radically new product is usual and a cumbersome and prolonged process of implementation is often the case. Market uncertainties, which are typical to radical inventions, must be minimized via a persisting probing process (Lynn et al., 1996). Thus is supported by the example of the invention of the Post-It- Notes, which took about 10 years of struggle and finally achieved success in 1990 after having undergone an intense probing process (Koput et al., 2003).


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Innovation Management and the better Mousetrap. A critical evaluation of Ralph Emmerson's work with reference to the complexity of today’s business environment
University Of Wales Institute, Cardiff
Innovation Management
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Better Mousetrap, Ralph Emerson
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Anonymous, 2014, Innovation Management and the better Mousetrap. A critical evaluation of Ralph Emmerson's work with reference to the complexity of today’s business environment, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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