Innovation

Experts suggest using innovation in times of crisis

Photo credit: Dudu Leal

This post was translated from Portuguese.  It was originally posted by FIERGS in Brazil following a keynote presented by Ken Tencer at their Innovation Forum, “Innovation in Times of Crisis”.  The original post can be read at: http://www.ielrs.org.br/pt-br/noticia/especialistas-sugerem-usar-inovacao-em-tempos-de-crise

“Nothing like a good crisis to generate great opportunities”. This was one of the takeaways shared by Ken Tencer, entrepreneur and Spyder Works CEO, during the 3rd Forum on Innovation and sponsored by the FIERGS System, through Sesi, Senai and IEL. “Many great businesses have started during recessions,” he told more than 700 people who came to FIERGS Events Center this Wednesday. “It’s important to focus on key clients and invest in innovation in a few areas,” said Tencer, a leader in management and innovation, and co-author of The 90% Rule®, which empowers companies of all sizes to identify, prioritize and implement growth opportunities. “Every day I challenge myself and my team to search for the next 10% of growth. We have to think about innovation every single day”, he commented. During the talk “Cause a Disturbance – a Simple Way to Innovate Continuously”. Tencer, who also co-authored bestseller Cause a Disturbance (2014), recommended delighting customers, “because they will delight your bottom-line”. To do this, the Canadian speaker suggests always listening to your customers, “because that’s where your ideas will often come from”. He said there are six steps to ensure that innovation is lasting and targeted (1) Engage emotions, not numbers, (2) Change the lives of your customers, (3) Connect the dots – between your business and its customers, (4) Identify and rank the opportunities, (5) Develop a plan, and (6) Communicate the plan.

In addition to Tencer, Gijs van Wulfen, an expert on innovation and design thinking, from the Netherlands, also spoke at the event. Van Wulfen is founder of the Forth Method which has been implemented by 35 European companies and is a LinkedIn Influencer, with more than 260,000 followers throughout the world. Van Wulfen shared 10 insights to innovate in times of crisis (1) Teamwork -You can invent alone, but you cannot innovate alone. Innovation must be bought in by all, (2) Choose the right moment, (3) The pace of the process has to be slow, (4) A great idea is a simple solution for a problem or a dream the customer has, (5) If you don’t have new insights, you will not have new ideas (which is essential for the sound operation of a business), (6) Think outside the box, but present it in a box, (7) Have a business plan, (8) Connect with the client from the start of the innovation, because “he is your support”, (9) “Innovation doesn’t stop at the first No, that’s where it starts”; 10) Lead your people, show them the way.

Gijs van Wulfen also presented the Forth Method, with its five islands of thought. According to van Wulfen, first we have to know where we want to get to, and then, look for the knowledge to get us there. “Ideas will come after a while and, with knowledge, we can choose the best ideas, try them, get the feedback, and then outline our business plan”.

Also presenting at the Forum was the company Imobras, which was featured in the Best Practices Toolbox, an initiative by the RS Innovation Center in the State of Rio Grande do Sul. The Center was created to support businesses in generating innovative solutions to their own challenges.

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Why technology is not a synonym for innovation

Originally published on July 3, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/four-great-innovation-opportunities-that-arent-technology/article25207445/

Not long ago, I was sitting in on an innovation roundtable. There were about 20 of us, all equally excited about the role of innovation in moving business forward. But after a short while, it became obvious that most of the talk was about technology. Now, let’s be clear. I am a huge proponent of technology – developing, investing in and adopting technology to improve the processes in our companies (and lives).

What annoyed me was that the group seemed to consider “technology” a synonym for innovation. But you don’t need technology to innovate. True innovation is about doing something new: developing better processes or bringing improved products and services to market. Innovation can be the newest technology, or just a new idea – such as when supermarkets learned to multiply their profit on a piece of fruit by pre-slicing it for today’s on-the-run consumer.

Conversely, much of technology today is far from innovative – from Amazon’s stone-cold Fire phone to the dorky Google Glass, that unnerved everyone around the (few) people who dared to wear that device.

Regardless, the point of my article is not to hammer technology or its role in business and society, but to promote every possible form of innovation, as a homegrown, low-risk way to create value for organizations and their customers.

The conversation at our roundtable continued, with one participant suggesting that we should find ways to support innovative technology companies. Fair enough, but this was followed by an observation that “We certainly aren’t looking to fund hair salons.” To which I asked, “Why not?” Why not fund hair salons if their business model is unique and brings new value to customers, such as Blo Blow Dry Bar, the fast-growing retail chain from Vancouver? Their groundbreaking motto: “No cuts, no color: just wash, blo, go.” Or how about getting behind the “athleisure” trend? The activewear trend was largely driven by Canadian superstar Lululemon, and now includes new competitors such as Montreal-based Lole.

I think what’s missing from most discussions about innovation is the fact that every aspect of human endeavour, not just business, requires continuous tweaking. Consider the National Hockey League, which is always tinkering with the rules, equipment standards and playoff formats to make the game faster, safer and more exciting – and just last month decided to make overtime a three–on-three competition for more freewheeling fun. In a world where everything is always changing, businesses especially must scrutinize all aspects of their operations to see where innovation can make them faster, stronger, more profitable, or more exciting.

Given this imperative, let’s look at a few non-technology trends that I believe will drive innovative business opportunities in the coming years.

1) What’s Old is New. Unfortunately, what’s old is us. The Boomers are aging and with this comes a shift in priorities. The underlying desire is to live active, healthy lives with self-respect and dignity for as long as possible. This leads to increasing demands for home health care products and in-home services: anything and everything that can provide us comfort, safety and day-to-day support, and delay the moment when the boomers must sell their drumkits and move into institutions. Yes, technology has a big role to play in this trend, from new drugs and anti-aging creams to wearable fitness monitors and alert buttons. But other opportunities abound, from custom in-home services to specialty foods, clothing and travel and entertainment services geared to active seniors.

2) Waste Not, Want Not. Mom and Dad told you to save your money and take better care of your things. Now, with increasing population density and shrinking discretionary incomes, making better use of what we have is more important than ever. As our living spaces get smaller, we’ve seen the rise of new stores, products and designers focused on maximizing storage space. And then there’s the “sharing” economy, in which upstart companies such as Airbnb, Uber and RentfrockRepeat help us to get more use out of the homes, cars and clothes that already exist. (Some people think these are technology companies, but I don’t see it. They’re not developing technology, they simply adopt it to create the powerful communications systems that allow owners and users of goods and services to find and trust each other.)

3) Treat Yourself. Consumers are harried. We are tired, and we face more financial pressures than ever. Sorry for that glamorous analysis of modern life but it’s true: it’s the reason for the rise of the eight-year car loan and why Ottawa had to ban 40-year mortgages. But the flipside of fiscal stress is rising demand for small indulgences. There are edible temptations such as the cakepop, the cronut, or one of Canada’s favourites, the Purdy’s hedgehog. There are relaxing indulgences courtesy of the day-spa movement. And you can even indulge yourself at the movies, with cinemas that let you pre-reserve larger seats and enjoy real meals while you watch.

4) Self-innovation. I don’t know many people who are completely content with themselves. Most of us have one or two things we’d like to improve, enlarge, reduce or re-invent. Either directly or through online course providers, we can now take thousands of university courses from esteemed institutions. Or we can find websites that teach us how to change the oil in our car, enhance our yoga skills or learn a new language. Being innovative with our own lives is an excellent complement to being innovative in our businesses.

Bottom Line: there are a lot of great companies with new, innovative ideas that go beyond the development of technology. Yes, they incorporate technology in their business model, but so should we all. Most importantly, these companies understand and anticipate market trends, and find new and engaging ways to solve challenging consumer problems.

So, for those of us who will never be technology developers, let’s take solace in all the other ways to grow our businesses as we enjoy a cakepop in our rented formal outfit and zip around town with our two-hour car allowance while learning how to ask for fine wines in Spanish.

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You don’t have to be creative to be a brilliant innovator

Originally published on February 13, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/leadership/you-dont-have-to-be-creative-to-be-a-brilliant-innovator/article22914969/

I take pride in the fact that I’ve never had a creative idea in my life.

You might think that’s an odd thing to be proud of, especially for an innovation advocate. But it’s just good sense.

Why am I so candid about admitting this apparent shortcoming? Because I see far too many business leaders who shy away from introducing initiatives simply because they think they have to be creative to be an innovator. It’s simply not true.

Creativity is defined as ‘thinking of new ideas.’ Innovation is the translation of new ideas into a market-ready product, process or service. Nowhere in the definition of innovation does it say that you need to be the one who is doing the ‘thinking.’ I recommend something far simpler and much cheaper: listening.

I rediscovered the importance of the lost art after reading an article by Dianne Schilling. She says that listening has become “a rare gift — the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time.”

Another benefit of listening is that it can provide you with the raw material of innovation: ideas. By listening to your customers and to prospects you meet in formal presentations, tradeshows and industry functions, you’ll hear the best ideas possible: those expressed by people with pressing challenges and the money to fix them. By asking a few questions and actively listening, you’re learn about their problems and unmet needs. Once you truly understand the details of their challenges you’re halfway to solving them – and that’s what innovation is all about.

After mastering the art of listening, there’s one more tool to adopt so as to really master the innovation field: empathy. This isn’t just about feeling someone else’s pain. It’s about sharing that pain, and ultimately finding ways to take it away.

As Ms. Schilling notes: “To experience empathy, you have to put yourself in the other person’s place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be her at that moment.”

What’s your motivation? Sales, of course. The better you become at understanding your customers’ challenges and frustrations, the more effective you will be at innovating solutions for them. And isn’t that what customers pay you for?

Understanding people’s real problems and needs requires special talent or effort. In Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human, he discusses a California high school teacher named Larry Ferlazzo, who uses a research tactic called attunement. “It’s about leading with my ears instead of my mouth,” says Ferlazzo. “It means trying to elicit from people what their goals are for themselves, and having the flexibility to frame what we do in that context.”

As entrepreneurs and business leaders, we can use listening skills and empathy to drive teams or entire organizations to continuously produce new products or services. This is where my strengths and those of many other business leaders, come in. We turn thoughts into action. We may not be especially creative, but we know how to mobilize a team and apply resources to get things done.

Some of the world’s most successful products derive more from listening than from blank-canvas creativity.

Consider the smartphone. The first mobile phones were big and clunky and did just one thing – send and receive phone calls. Making them smaller wasn’t creative genius, but the product of vigilant, ongoing improvement. Mobile phone makers didn’t invent clocks or cameras, but they saw an opportunity and incorporated both into mobile phone handsets. When was the last time you saw a teenager wearing a watch or carrying a camera? Another smart person listened to teens and realized they don’t do much talking on their phones. The innovative solutions were instant messaging and texting, Twitter and Instagram. Presto, a simple product designed for talking has morphed into a ubiquitous appliance that allows people to stay in touch with each other without talking.

I would argue that creativity had little to do with this evolution. Mobile phone innovation owes its success to the people who listened to the marketplace and understood enough to say, “If we add a clock and a camera and a keyboard, everyone will buy this.”

Listening carefully is the soul of innovation and the reason I take some pride in not being creative. I’m good at listening to customers, empathizing with their problems and project-managing a solution. They don’t pay me to make stuff up.

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