by Tom Triumph, Featured Contributor
IT’S HARD to know when the best era was to be an innovator. Maybe we missed it. There was certainly a lot of opportunity for innovation 2.6 million years ago. That’s the period when anthropologists dated the earliest actual tools ever found, which were simple modified stone tools – such as a hand axe. So, except for the chipped stone, that would have left basically… let me think, everything else to be invented.
Of course not everything would have been conducive to living the life of an inventor back then. For one thing, there wasn’t even language. Good luck using grunts to describe plans for a steam engine. And before you could even begin to make a drawing, you’d have to invent paper and pencils. Paper I think is made somehow with trees and glue, so you’ll have to also invent glue. And I have no idea how to make a pencil. My suggestion is to start with a chipped rock.
As for the office environment, it would be pretty hostile since you’d be mostly outdoors. Keep an eye out for the Titanis – a large flightless carnivorous bird that was over 8 feet tall and weighed 330 pounds, and the Megalodon – which happens to be the largest shark that ever lived and could weigh 100 tons and reached 20 meters long. So, while the era was definitely ripe for innovation, it would have been really hard to fight a gigantic shark with a hand axe the size of an iPhone (you see, I’m already introducing technology to the Pliocene epoch).
Which brings us to today. The good news is that we’re here, with language, paper and computers; and we have the perspective of 2.6 million years of history to comprehend just how far innovation has moved the world forward. Often it does so in small ways (a pointy rock is more effective than a blunt rock), and sometimes in big ways (smelting metals).
And here’s what we see – whether innovation involved fashioning the first stone tools millions of years ago, or powering pumps with early steam engines in 1781 – the advances never ceased and continually improved our ability to survive.
It’s also apparent that we’re living in a period where innovation is occurring at a rate not previously experienced. Back in the day, your brand new stone axe looked just like your great great grandpas old-school stone axe. My college-age kids don’t even want my 1998 Palm Pilot (spoiled right?), so I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy tweeting with their great great grandpas telegraph.
Indeed, it’s the very nature of mankind to create and invent, and that has profoundly shaped our world and lives. Inventing and creating is fundamental to being human.
Yet, many people probably don’t see themselves as innovators; or believe that creativity isn’t a necessary part of their work. Maybe your job involves just keeping the wheels on the business by managing the day-to-day problems; and when you’re heads-down with a manufacturing problem or challenges with vendors – you may not be doing much innovation. That’s understandable. But, remember we’ve come a long way since the stone axe, due in part to continuous innovation; so do your part, or risk becoming displaced or food for giant birds.
HERE ARE SOME PRAGMATIC WAYS IN WHICH YOU CAN INNOVATE.
- Cross Pollinate
Combine things that haven’t been used together before. It’s what Steve Jobs did when he incorporated various typeface fonts with the computer. I will always remember my amazement (having purchased a Mac in 1984) at being able to select a block of text and change the font to a variety of choices.
There are an infinite ways to cross-pollinate, and even a simple yet clever addition can add competitive differentiation. Just look at the REEF sandals that incorporate a bottle opener into the sole.
- Introduce New Technology
It’s great to run outside in beautiful weather. But I don’t mind running outside in terrible weather. That wasn’t always the case. I used to come in completely soaked and freezing after running for hours like a lost soul in the freezing rain. Now I come in warm and dry after running like a lost soul in the freezing rain.
Thank you Nike + Gore-Tex.
- Look Forward
This is how people got rich in the early days of the web. Some people saw the burgeoning adoption, and started web design companies. When companies wanted websites, those businesses grew. Other people saw the web as a platform to publish inexpensively and reach an audience of millions for next to free – so they started companies that let people post video or blogs.
What could you or your company due today to take advantage of how the world will be different in the near future. How could the emergence of Big Data & analytics (how retailers like Target know their shoppers are pregnant before their families do), or the exponential growth of wireless sensors, play a part in your future.
- Look Backward
Sometimes it helps to look back at the past. This is basically the opposite of looking forward. If nothing else, looking backwards gives you an appreciation for the inevitable march of change, and will remind you to continually be thinking of improvements, before your competitors. What clues does the past tell you about the future?
Remember what it was like before fax, email or the web? How did your company adopt to those technologies and use them to add value to your customers? What does it tell you about how well or poorly your company navigated the changes?
And more recently, with the ubiquity of mobile devices, the availability of cloud computing and all the nearly free platforms to let you communicate – How did your business utilize these technologies to add value (or not)?
Sometimes, you don’t need a revolution. You just need a major evolution. A completely new and improved design. Something that re-imagines the product or the offering.
This can be difficult for an organization, because people are comfortable with the tried and familiar. And a redesign means abandoning the current offering and launching something new.
- Subtract and Delete
This is the discipline of simplifying or pruning, and is often overlooked. It involves eliminating those product or services that aren’t moving the business forward, yet subtley drain resources from the organization that could otherwise be applied elsewhere.
Spotting them is usually obvious; they’re the offerings that contribute little to your revenue. Yet getting rid of them is often difficult as they typically don’t involve much time, and are often viewed as things that “round out the line, even though we hardly ever sell them.”
The reality is pretty much everything takes time or resources; and you have to weigh the benefits of spending energy on anything not associated with the future of your company.
- Ask Your Customer
Get out of the office and visit your top 10 customers (you should be doing that anyway). Ask them what changes to your product or services would help them generate more sales or save time or money.
Yes, it’s true that customers don’t always know what they want. Henry Ford supposedly said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” That might be folklore. There were dozens of automobile companies in existence in 1901 when Henry Ford started The Henry Ford Company, so his customers probably would have been able to express an interest in reliable and cheaper automobiles. Most of the time your customers know what they want, and most of the time you need to listen. Keep track of how many customers tell you nearly the same thing. You can always decide to ignore their requests.
Maybe the reason it took so long for the ketchup companies to flip their bottles around was because they ignored what their customers were saying.
- Scare Yourself
Its human nature to worry that there might be a saber tooth tiger above that boulder readying to pounce. That fear has surely kept countless tribesmen alive, and could help your modern day company.
For some reason, sometimes it’s easier to imagine what innovative moves a competitor might be working on. Ask yourself what could a competitor do that could severely impact your product category or the market? The exercise may result in your generating valuable ideas for yourself, and additionally provide the motivation (fear) to do something.
- Take a Hybrid Approach
This may seem similar to the first suggestion to “Cross Pollinate”, but that really concerns combining two disparate ideas (fonts & computers, sandals & bottle openers) whereas taking a hybrid approach implies taking a look at combining two different solutions currently being used in the market. A good example would be hybrid cars, which combine both gas engines and electric motors (along with batteries for storage and generating capability).
Another example would be “reposable” medical instruments, which combines traditional reusable instruments with disposable medical devices. The end result being the handle is sterilizable and reusable, while the cutting tip would be disposable. Reposable medical instruments have the advantage of reducing waste, cutting costs and being perfectly sharp for each new patient.
- Improve the Product’s Essence
What does your product or service actually provide. Figure out what need or needs your offering satisfies, and make improvements there. It’s often not as obvious as it seems.
Does Starbucks provides a “great cup of coffee?” Or does Starbucks provide a comfortable, clean and familiar environment for people to comfortably sit and talk; or open up their laptop and use wifi to get some work done between appointments?
Does a Rolex watch provide accurate time keeping (actually, less accurate then a $10 quartz watch), or does it provide a recognizable brand to which the wearers want to be associated?
- Innovate Your Marketing & Sales
Sometimes the innovation doesn’t need to be with your product, but rather with your marketing. Do prospects understand your value proposition? How could you improve your messaging? What is the prospects’ experience?
A quick personal story… after switching from a distributor organization to a direct sales organization that consisted primarily of nurse practitioners, we transformed the sales process to focus on education (the science of healing), the patient (clinical outcomes) and physician benefit (decreased complications). The product was already sufficiently superior to other products in the market, so the only changes were to the marketing and sales efforts. Worldwide sales skyrocketed, doubling to over 50% market share within 18 months.
- Empower Your Customers
What can you do to empower your customers to help grow your business? Are they able to play a part in your growth? Can you enlist thought leaders to discuss the benefits of what you offer to their colleagues?
- Change the Usage
Another possibility is to consider expanding the customer usage patterns for your product. Arm & Hammer lists hundreds of uses for their Baking Soda on their website, and includes categories like pets, baby, outdoors and personal care. I didn’t even see baking listed as a use.
While there are many other ideas for ways to innovate, these will provide some good ideas to at least get you started.
Honestly, you’ll do great. And I’m not just saying that to make you feel good. Here’s the reality. You come from a family of innovators. In fact, your lineage is incredibly impressive. Each and every one of your ancestors had to be clever enough and move fast enough to survive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t even be here. The ability to innovate is in your genes.
So, pull up a chair or drag over a rock, and think about what you can improve to create a better future. And don’t worry about any 8 foot carnivorous 330 pound birds, I’m inventing an app for that.