We Don’t Need More Mousetraps!

Imagine an island country where the only industry is making mousetraps – let’s call it Mousetrapia. And the people that live there are incredibly creative. Consequently, they invent new mousetraps constantly, and they patent them as well. They patent so many mousetraps that the number of patents per capita for Mousetrapians is among the best in the world.

This high level of creativity is due in part to the fantastic higher education system in Mousetrapia. The academics there are the world leaders in researching and publishing work on mousetraps. Just as in patents, their publications per capita rank among the best.

Since startups are an important part of any innovation ecosystem, last year the federal government provided money to start the world’s first MouseTech Accelerator, called The Cheese. On demo day, there were two outstanding teams that got funded. One built the first mousetrap that connects to the Internet of Things, with an app that lets you set your mousetrap from your smartphone, even if you’re nowhere near home. Of course, the MVP version still requires you to load the cheese manually, but it’s a start. The other startup is described as Uber for Mousetraps. It’s a platform that connects people with mousetraps but no mice with those that have mice but no mousetraps. So the startup scene is thriving.

The innovation ecosystem in Mousetrapia looks great!

Except when you look for an impact from all this activity in the Mousetrapian economy. No one is buying any of their mousetraps. They’re building tons of better mousetraps, but the world is definitely not beating a path to their door.

If you ask people what’s wrong, they’ll say: “We’re punching way above our weight in patents, papers and startups. We just need to get better at commercialising things.”

This is not a commercialisation problem.

Could it be that they’re building the wrong things?

The fact of the matter is that the mousetrap problem is pretty comprehensively solved, and it has been since 1894.

All of the Mousetrapian innovation is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Australia is a bit like Mousetrapia. We just had yet another report on the performance of the innovation ecosystem, which, like all the others, concludes that the country is excellent at generating new ideas, but not so good at commercialising them.

This reflects a flawed model of innovation – that it is a linear process. We have the idea, we build it, we sell it. This doesn’t work, and we’ve known this for more than fifty years. Yet still, when we try to make our countries, firms or startups more effective, we fall back on the linear model.

The fact of the matter is that Mousetrapia is not innovative at all. Every bit of their creative energy is going into solving problems that aren’t problems. They’re executing lots of new ideas – they’re awesome at that. But they’re not creating value.

To innovate, we must do all three things: have great ideas, make them real, and create value in doing so.

This is really hard to do if we try to follow a linear model. It’s much better to think of innovation as circular and iterative. We talk to people a bit to understand what problems they’re struggling with, then build something that might help with that to see if it works. And we do this repeatedly until we’ve got something that solves actual problems for real people. This is what is built into the lean startup approach, which is a good method for breaking out of the linear model problems.

When I see stats that show a group of people whose innovation system looks like Mousetrapia’s, I don’t see a commercialisation problem – I see a bunch of people solving the wrong problems.


Here’s a short video that I made that talks about this a bit for an online short course called Ideas to Impact:

Also, it’s an honour to be included on this list of the World’s Most Influential Innovation Blogs. It’s a terrific list, filled with great resources for those of us interested in innovation.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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13 thoughts on “We Don’t Need More Mousetraps!

  1. Thanks Tim for this great article. It fulfils the first requirement for any successful article: It is fun to read!

    I fully agree to what you describe and how you describe it. With a slightly different conclusion. Mousetrapia is not doomed because it is not iterative. It actually is. Every new patent is an iteration. Assuming that there are mice in Mousetrapia and the invented mousetraps are applied for additional learning towards the next patent.

    Mousetrapia is doomed because it does not start from a relevant customer need nor from market pressure. These are from my experience typical starting points for successful innovations. Obviously an unmet need provides huge potential for innovation. Market pressure is also quite an important starting point, though. If there was not just Mousetrapia but also Moustrapolis, the 1894 Mousetrap would probably collect dust in the shelves once Mousetrapolis starts selling Mousetraps. Either way if Mousetrapolis sells mousetraps with additional features or if they just sell it in fancy colors and shapes or via online stores instead of via the good old hardware store.

    I am looking forward to reading your perspective on this.

    • Thanks Henryk. I pretty much agree with your points. I did have a section about their existing firms, which are basically acting like your Mousetropolis. Which is fine from a revenue standpoint, but will still not drive growth. So I think our thinking is reasonably well aligned.

  2. ’Fall in love with the problem not the solution.’’ – Uri Levine, co-founder of Waze

    We have a similar problem at our university: students thinking that the basis for a startup is a cool idea, rather than an unfulfilled customer need.

    For this reason, we now begin our founders coaching with customer need and target market and don’t allow the students to talk about their product idea until they have been convincingly stated. Of course, in the process of doing so, many students realize that only have an idea for a cooler-looking mousetrap, but not for something that anyone actually needs.

    That is good for the productivity of the coaching team (they have more time to spend on the genuine business ideas) but bad for the KPIs by which they are evaluated.

    btw. the word “number” is repeated in the last sentence of the intro.

    • Thanks Graham! I’ve heard a very similar quote from Ash Maurya as well, and I really think it’s important. I’ve been doing things with scientists that are very similar to what you’re doing with founders – it definitely works!

  3. Great post, Tim! The mistakes in Australia’s self-evaluation (“we’re great at ideas, poor at commercializing”) are the same that leaders so often make when evaluating their org’s innovation efforts. Reminds me of Ries’ concept of “Achieving failure” — perfectly executing the wrong plan.

    (Congrats on the recognition. Well deserved!)

    • Thanks Phil! It absolutely works at the organisational level as well. Your quote from Ries reminds me of this one from Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

  4. Thanks for a great story, Tim!
    You make an important point that innovation is non-linear. I’ve found that innovation is unlocked when teams focus on the insight (the result of research) as opposed to the idea (an assumption based on insight).
    Love the blog, btw!

  5. Thanks Tim. Great article, but I have a few problems. Consider the situation where I have developed a product-market fit only to struggle with getting access to resources to deliver the product. In this case, I’m talking about access to researchers. It can be very challenging to convince researchers to stop what they are currently doing (publish papers) and create value for customers (develop products). The academic ecosystems is still driven by some dated KPI’s. Do you have any advice on this issue?

    • Thanks for the comment Elliot. I do have some thoughts – too much probably for this venue. That’s a bit part of why I’ve put a big effort into helping to build the ON program – to try to start addressing those issues. I’m traveling for work right now, but let’s try to catch up on campus once I’m back.