I meet with executives everyday. They have great knowledge about their businesses–they can cite everything about their strategies, priorities, goals, key metrics. They study their competitors incessantly, understanding their strategies and positioning. They study their markets, and the best study their customers. They have deep insight about everything in their industry.
But when I talk to them, a critical issue they always bring up is, “How do we innovate?” “How do we start thinking out of the box?”
One of the problems with innovating and thinking out of the box is that we are prisoners of our own experience. Most of us have long experiences in our industry. We’ve been working with our company a long time, we may have worked with one of our competitors, we may have worked with one of our customers. We go to “our trade shows,” we read “our trade magazines,” we have deep knowledge about our companies, industries and markets.
That’s part of what makes us effective as leaders and business professionals, but at the same time, it’s exactly what limits us. Our ideas and innovations are limited by this collection of past experiences. We “know” what works and what doesn’t work, never reconsidering ideas that were “bad” in the past. We look at what our competitors are doing, copying them, perhaps tweaking the idea to one up them. We turn the crank on the tried and true programs of the past, sharpening them, reshaping them—sometimes it’s just like putting lipstick on a pig.
So how do we escape this? It’s actually pretty easy (maybe I’m giving away the secret decoder ring of consultants), we need to look outside our own industries. We need to look in very different industries to see how they approach some of the issues that we face. For example, a few years ago, we put the executives of one of the leading high technology (B2B) companies together with the execs of an extreme sports company. It was an interesting picture, on one side of the conference room, a row of execs in neatly pressed khaki’s and blue shirts, on the other side, guys in board shorts, torn tee shirts, lots of body ink and interesting piercings. Each eyed the other warily, some started looking at me thinking, “Dave, what have you gotten us into? Who are these freaks?”
We tee’d off the session with a few key questions about their business models, key challenges, problems, and so forth. Gradually, they found they had a lot in common. All were struggling to grow their businesses. All were struggling to get new and innovative ideas. As they started to talk over different approaches, one of the exec’s said to his peers in his company, “They are doing something really interesting and different from what everyone does in our industry, if we co-opted their ideas, if we twisted them a little here and there, they would be really new and novel for our company!”
Soon everyone was discovering something “new.” It wasn’t “new” to the presenter, but to the others it was new and innovative–when adapted to their industry. Each side started seeing ideas presented from a source they never would have thought about before.
Innovation doesn’t have to be brand new and revolutionary. innovation can be artful adaptations of old ideas from very different industries and sources. Try looking outside your industry–not just to adjacent industries, but to widely separated groups. Try looking across generations–forget Gen Y–they are so old–look at kids. Try looking across national borders and cultures. Look at what other people do, how they handle similar issues, look at what you can learn and adapt from them. Share what you are doing, let them learn and adapt from you.
Innovation is simple, you just have to know where to look, how to listen, how to artfully co-opt and adapt. Tom Peters coined the phrase, Management By Wandering Around, MBWA. Try IBWA–Innovation By Wandering Afar.