On Innovation

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Innovation is important. We all know there is a limit to doing the same old things, over and over. Even though we may do them in greater volume or greater velocity, over time they become…….well old…..and not very effective.

So we struggle to innovate. We think of the great new revolutionary or disruptive idea. We reflect on people like Thomas Edison and his inventions (like the light bulb), or the invention of the internal combustion engine, or Al Gore inventing the internet (sorry, I couldn’t resist).



We tend to think of “innovation” as radically new and disruptive.

These type of innovations are, relatively, few and far between.

But if we are to improve, if we are to respond to the challenges we see in business, with our customers, or even those within our own company, we have to innovate. We have to think differently than we have before.

Sometimes, what we think is innovation, really isn’t—or it isn’t innovation that can have an impact. Some of our innovation is copying—we look at what our competitors are doing and we do the same thing. While it may be helpful, we can never be a leader by copying our competitors or near competitors. At best we can only be a close second.

But there’s another source of innovation that sits between the radically new and disruptive (think light bulb) and copying our competitors.

I call it artful plagiarism. Here’s how it works.



Look in a very different place than you traditionally look. For example, a different discipline or function. Or a very different industry. Or a very different topic area.

Assess some of the things they do and see how you might adapt them to what you do and how they might improve their performance.

Yeah, you are scratching your head thinking, “Here Dave goes off rambling again….” Let me explain though some examples:

  1. Look at a very different industry. When we benchmark or copy, we tend to look within the same industry or near industries. It’s really difficult to innovate, we tend to copy each other and stair step each other. Instead, look at industries at least 2-3 adjacencies away. Understand some of their best practices and look at how you might adapt them to your industry and company. I’ve cited an example we did a number of years ago, helping two clients innovate. One was a fashion designer in the extreme sports industry. The other was one of the largest semiconductor managers in the world. Both were trying to learn new things and innovate, but were prisoners of their own and their markets’ experiences. Yet the fashion designers saw things that the semiconductor folks were doing. They saw ways they could tweak and adapt them and they would be revolutionary and disruptive in their own industry and company. Likewise the semiconductor folks saw things the fashion designers were doing that could be adapted (artfully plagiarized) that would be new and innovative in their markets.
  2. Look at other functions. I spend a lot of time with manufacturing people, design engineers, product developers, programmers. I’ve found lots of things they do, that can be artfully adapted to selling. For example, the Toyota Production System is the cornerstone to most manufacturing and lean practices. But there are lots of things in TPS that can be adapted to sales (I wrote an eBook on this a few years ago, ask me for a copy). Of some of you have seen me writing a lot about sensemaking. Actually sensemaking has been extensively developed in a lot of lean/agile development (think coding) and, ironically, in social change. There are a rich array of tools, techniques, processes and models that support sensemaking approaches in those areas. But I’m now working with a team of folks, looking at how do we adapt those well known practices to selling.
  3. Read different books, hang out in radically different places or with very different people. As I said before, we become prisoners of our own experiences. We can’t see outside those bounds. But if we expose ourselves not to new ideas, but very old ideas and practices–but in very different places, they become very new and innovative for us. So, for example, I’m reading a book on philosophy, learning, and social change. It was written in the 60’s to address changes in the education system. But as I read it, I continually think, “What ideas do they have that I can artfully adapt to sales and leadership?” Or, I sit on the board of an entertainment company focused on rap, hip-hop and urban culture. Imagine that, an older white guy who thought the Beatles, Beachboys, and Metallica were cool (Metallica still is). But I’m learning a lot through them, I am even beginning to rhyme, but it will take some time………(Ok, a lot of time). Likewise, they value me on the board, because I bring them a different experience base and ideas that are new and fresh for them.

Innovation is about new and different. It’s about step function changes in how we think, what we do, and how we grow. But that doesn’t mean it’s new new, or the very first ever…. It can be something very old and common place somewhere else, but when applied in our company, our industry, our markets, and with our customers can be radically different from past practice.

Innovation doesn’t need to be that hard. It’s simply about looking in very different places, at what may be commonplace or mundane, but when tweaked and adapted to our worlds, is new, innovative, and game changing!



What are you doing? Where are you looking? How are you artfully plagiarizing.

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