How To Innovate

In my last blog post I talked about innovation and why many big companies lose the ability to innovate. You can find that post here.

In this post I will tackle how to innovate. I’ll start with a working definition. Innovation strategies are creative thinking strategies but applied to an opportunity that can be seen by looking at something in a different way.

The most important part of being able to innovate is what you don’t do. You can’t start by putting boundaries around your thinking.

  • don’t let an issue stop you from moving an idea forward - examples are cost and manufacturing difficulties
  • don’t let your ideas be forced into the way things are currently done - an innovation may show the path to doing things better
  • don’t see challenges as limitations - see them as opportunities
  • don’t concern yourself with how an industry measures success - change the rules
  • don’t worry about the size of a market - a niche market can usually teach you something new that may be appreciated by a larger market
  • don’t stop at pushing something to a comfortable limit - push it beyond into an uncomfortable space

Once you have taken the boundaries down you need to push your thinking to the other side of the boundaries. You need to go from not letting the boundaries get in your way to thinking on the other side. Mix ideas together (e.g. new product idea + new business model), take seeds of ideas from other places, collaborate, and let your ideas evolve and change.

Below are some strategies I’ve found that work well for me.

What’s The Problem

Sometimes an innovative solution to a problem is very easy. The trick can be identifying a problem that is difficult to see. Many of these problems are just below the threshold of where they are obvious. Inclusive design is very helpful in this regard. By focusing on people with specific challenges you can find solutions that are better for everyone. OXO Good Grips is a great example with the original vegetable peeler being designed for someone with arthritis but the design makes everybody’s experience with the product better.

Good Grips Vegetable Peeler from

Make sure there is effort that is put towards identifying new and interesting problems and not just effort towards solving the obvious problems.

Solve the Paradox

Create a paradox of attributes that appear to be a straightforward compromise and ideate around concepts that solve the paradox and then innovate on the new problems. On the original BlackBerry device it was, “how can I make a keyboard better by making it smaller?” The answer is by changing the way you type (thumbtyping) and automating many functions (like periods and capitals). You could look at the original iPhone this way as well, “how can I get a bigger screen on a smaller device?” then go about solving the new interaction challenges. A new innovation using “Solve the Paradox” that I have been trying to tackle is creating a smartphone design that enables comfortable one handed use and also allows a design with a large touchscreen.

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

A great and easy innovation strategy is to think of a parameter of the market as being very different than today and then imagining the products and services to serve that different reality. It usually just gets you thinking down a different path where new ideas can easily form even if the different parameter isn’t realistic. The end result can be a combination of ideas or a different perspective that might have nothing to do with the start point. Let’s look at an example in payment processing fees. Credit card transaction costs are between 2% and 3% of the cost of the items being bought. The consumers don’t see these fees but they are obviously included in the item’s cost. What would the situation be if someone came in the market with the transaction fees at zero? How could Visa and Mastercard respond when stores stop accepting their cards? Maybe the service would be from Amazon or Google in exchange for transaction details that can improve their data analysis for recommendations or advertising especially when it is tied into your other search and purchasing behaviour. This thought can then lead to other questions. Maybe through a system like that manufacturers could make offers directly to you that can be picked up in a retail store to move inventory of certain items. How would you design the store if it knew who you were and your purchasing behavior when you walked in? By just thinking of a different market reality it can lead you down a chain of new thoughts.

You Get What You Measure

This statement is true and is used as a good practice to get companies to add business metrics to everything they do. It works and once you setup a metric you can usually put in place plans and strategies to improve the results of the metric. But often you start to trade off everything you don’t measure. Metrics are simplifications that make goals clear and straightforward. Metrics can be setup internally in a company or may be just what has existed for many years across an industry. A great source of innovation is looking at the limitations of a metric, what is it missing, what elements that are important are left out because they are hard to measure. I’m not against using business metrics. In fact they are a great source of innovation. Improving business and industry metrics helps you evolve and optimize what you are doing. Looking where everyone else isn’t looking helps you innovate. A great example here is the book Moneyball written by Michael Lewis in 2003 about the Oakland Athletics baseball team (the book has more detail then the movie). The industry metric to evaluate a hitter was a hitter’s batting average and a batter being walked was attributed to a pitcher’s lack of skill and not that of the batter’s skill. By appreciating the skill of a batter who would be walked often you could get great value for skill that isn’t reflected in the industry metrics. An exciting source of innovation knowledge going forward will be from finding what attributes of simplistic industry metrics are missing or incomplete by looking at more complete information from big data sets.

Segment Differently

Many industries are defined by how they segment the market. A new car will be compared by its features and price to other cars in its segment. In the auto industry you have compact cars, mid-size, luxury, SUV’s etc… Working within predefined segments can make innovation very tough but purposely working against existing segments can help direct innovative thinking. Imagine designing two different vehicles and trying to create very little overlap in the customers they attract but don’t use the parameters of price or size. Another approach is to ignore the existing segmentation completely. Dyson seems to find success with this approach. They are driven by innovative technology but they also innovate on how they bring their products to market. By focusing on different attributes like design and performance they create new segments with different retailers and price points. With the Air Multiplier fan, Dyson completely ignored the segments and pricing that existed in the market for floor or table fans. Expensive designer fans existed as ceiling fans but a floor or table fan was a very utilitarian and cheap item and would be priced by size and features. Dyson made an object that is maybe more sculpture than appliance but still has great performance.

Dyson Air Multiplier Fan from

People Do Want To Learn Something New

One thing I would hear a lot is that you shouldn’t change how something works because people don’t want to learn something new. This just isn’t true and it is a powerful way to stifle any innovation. Is the product or service exciting and compelling enough that people want to learn how to use it? This is the real question that matters. Make sure you don’t confuse new vs. old with complex vs. simple. Something new will always test as more complex against objects people already know how to use. A lot of people say Apple products are simple to use and that is part of their secret sauce yet Apple is always introducing new ways to interact with their products (pinch to zoom, typing on glass, force touch etc…). The difference is the product is compelling enough that you want to learn how to use it and you enjoy the learning experience. Nest is another example. Nobody knew how to operate a Nest thermostat before they came on the market but if you see one in person you can’t resist not playing with it and they have no problem charging a lot of money for it.

Nest Thermostat from

Of course it seems simple if learning how to use it was a positive experience. If you just make products that everybody already knows how to use, then you aren’t doing anything innovative at the product level.

Ideas Aren’t Cheap But …

People talk about ideas being cheap and execution being valuable. In innovation it’s different. Identifying a problem to solve is valuable and ideas are valuable as well. However, even though ideas are valuable it is best to treat them like they are cheap and rank knowledge and insight as more valuable than ideas. Since ideas leapfrog off each other you need to do everything you can to take away resistance to new ideas and this means treating your current ideas as disposable. When new information or a new viewpoint may challenge an idea, the best thing is to incorporate it into your thinking and jump off your current idea to a better idea. Rarely is the first innovation idea you have on a problem the best one so don’t fall in love with it. Let it bounce around in your head for awhile until some added insight might help get you to a better idea.

The Answer Isn’t All Hard Work

Most of my innovative ideas hit me when I’m not doing any challenging thinking. This is when I’m jogging, in the shower, sitting on an airplane, or right before I go to sleep. Don’t cut this time out and fill it with ‘real work’. All the hard work you do is part of the equation in getting the knowledge, forming your views, stretching your thinking but the innovative jump happens when your mind is processing the information in a semi-conscious state. Find your balance. You need to do all the hard work including spending time focused on the innovation but you need to let your mind run free as well and it probably doesn’t hurt to allow a little more time for that then you are doing now.

Fall In love With Insights

Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere but you should do real insights research as well. You need to be able to put yourself in the mindset of other people. Don’t go into the research knowing what you want to see or trying to prove a particular point of view. You want to discover things that you didn’t even think about and you want to create more questions than you started with. Don’t waste your research budget on things you already know. Spend it on uncovering things you don’t know yet. A lot of people think of research as a way to answer questions, but for innovation it’s a way to find problems and raise new questions.

On Innovation ← previous post

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