Many of our clients routinely seek opportunities and methods to make their organizations more innovative. They believe that being more innovative will allow them to successfully differentiate themselves from competitors and attract more customers willing to pay premium prices for their products and services. To demonstrate the concept of innovation, I am frequently asked to highlight case studies of organizations that have applied innovative solutions to various aspects of their businesses. Invariably, I follow the beaten path of customer experience luminaries such as Ritz Carlton, Starbucks, Apple, Virgin and Zappos. The reception, however, to such stories is often cool. Executives often claim that these stories (which they asked me to provide) are not relevant because “this is not exactly our industry and we can’t innovate like Apple or Virgin”. While somewhat agreeing with their claims, I emphasize that specific examples are not meant to be emulated but rather serve to illustrate that innovation is possible even in industries or companies where it is thought to be a pipe dream. These stories are meant solely to inspire people, awaken their creative skills, and demonstrate that innovation, even in the most unlikely of places, is possible.
After a while I began thinking about the source of innovation for the aforementioned customer experience leaders like Ritz Carlton and Zappos. I wondered whether these organizations referenced any case studies as a source of innovation. It soon hit me that these organizations did not look to other companies to drive innovation but found it from within. These innovative companies did not try to replicate others’ success but decided to blaze their own innovative trail.
So what then is the source of their innovation? Where did they find a reservoir of creativity? As one of my mentors, Jerry Vass, once told me, “the number of people who were born sales people are equivalent to the number of people who were born neurosurgeons, about a tenth of a percent. The rest need to learn it.” The same saying is equally true of innovators. Most human beings are simply not born with the ability to innovate. It is an acquired capability that requires training and practice. The more practice under one’s belt, the more innovative that person will become. Alternatively, those individuals that simply repeat what they know well with little change are unlikely to be a good source to drive innovation throughout their organizations.
Let’s examine the various free-of-charge sources of innovation. However, before we do, let me offer one note of caution. If you’re looking for a case study, you won’t find it. The best sources of information can be found within each and every one of us.
• Frustration – We are all consumers of various products and services. Ask yourself to recall the times when you, as a customer underwent an unacceptable experience and thought to yourself “there’s got to be a better way,” or “why don’t they just do this or that?” Your personal frustration with a confusing phone menu, irrational process or asinine policy is a terrific source of innovation because it forces you to think about what needs to be done differently so that the experience can be made excellent and memorable. Before telling yourself that something is not ripe for innovation, identify specific sources of customer frustration and you will surely find countless opportunities to innovate and differentiate.
• The anti-establishment – As founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson is notorious for entering businesses about which he is relatively clueless. By doing so, he brings to these new endeavors, his greatest competitive advantage – naiveté. His philosophy is that being new to an industry frees him from established industry thinking, so that he can approach his business with a fresh set of eyes and ideas. Mr. Branson routinely deploys his secret naiveté sauce to any aspect of business which he perceives as not being customer-centric, with an eye towards innovation. His anti establishment approach is an excellent source for innovation because he does not think like many industry veterans and is not bound by limitations that others have accepted upon themselves as a result of previous failures. The guiding question that new players and industry veterans should ask themselves when seeking to innovate is, “What would you differently if you entered a brand new industry you know nothing about?”
• The “Will Never Do” list – My good friend and author of “What a Great Idea,” Chip Thomson, has a novel approach to awaken the hidden innovator in every person. He suggests that people make a list of all the things they would never do. He then asks them to use the list as an opportunity to innovate. Through this exercise, Chip tries to alert participants to the mental limitations they place on themselves. Try this exercise (and check out Chip’s book) and you will discover opportunities for innovation that you never considered because you mentally placed them in the “will never do” list.
• Observations – When was the last time you met a customer and simply observed him use your company’s products? Did you see what happened when he opened the box and read the instructions? Was he able to put the product together? Where did he store the product? In what way did he use the product? Are their certain things he does before or after using it? There are myriad questions you can ask yourself about customer behavior that will provide a never-ending source of innovation. For those of you still hoping for a case study, consider this. Starbucks first offered skim milk for their beverages after CEO Howard Shultz witnessed a female jogger enter a store and leave without making a purchase because there was no skim milk. There may be no better source of innovation than observations of customers. Starbucks, like many other companies, discovered new usages for their products and services as a result of this important exercise.
For many people, the word “innovator” conjures up images of hip pony-tailed people in Seattle or California who listen to edgy music, go into clubs through back doors and read magazines whose titles, most people don’t understand. Other people think of innovators as a select group of individuals wearing white lab coats with special access cards and advanced degrees in a subject matter that our grandmothers (and many of us) have never heard of. Not only are these assumptions erroneous, but they limit us from thinking that we too can innovate. The ability to innovate is within all of us, not the select few.
Many of us are simply intimidated to innovate. When we think of innovative companies we see images of the sleek genius bar at Apple’s flagship New York store. Those who rack up frequent flyer miles might think of Singapore Airline’s incredible first class section. Yet it doesn’t have to be so grand. Innovation can include offering customers a VIP card (Starbucks), or opening up a blanket in the aisle and tucking a passenger in (Virgin Atlantic) instead of simply handing him a blanket. Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes and can be very inexpensive.
Whether you recognize it or not, you are a customer each and every day. When you brush your teeth, get dressed, eat, drive, speak on the phone, watch TV, read a book or use a computer, you are a customer. You experience life as a customer and inevitably encounter situations that can be a source of innovation. The problem with many people attempting to drive innovation is that they approach it as if it were an exercise. Start thinking like a customer and do not let common industry thinking intimidate you from asking questions and devising novel solutions. Start asking questions and generating solutions, however outrageous they may appear to be. Drop the executive hat and ignore the naysayers. Find the inner customer and start thinking and acting the part. Innovation is within you. There is no better source.