big ideas

Why it’s time to build your own Google lab of wild ideas

Originally published on September 18, 2013 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail.

google

I was sitting in the audience of IdeaCity, when tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain made the point that if you want to find a really big idea, you should start by finding a really big problem.

Sounds obvious, right? But the founder of InfoSpace (now Blucora), Intelius and Moon Express went on to say that the big hurdle in finding those big ideas is that people have to re-learn how they see things. Traditionally, we look for opportunities in things –– products, services, supply chains or business models – that we see as broken and in need of fixing. But as Jain pointed out, this doesn’t work any more because “usually things aren’t broken, they’re simply obsolete.”

This is a powerful concept. In today’s business world, it’s rarely obvious when products or systems are broken. But they may be obsolete. The horse is still a viable means of transportation, and film-based cameras can still take great photographs, but economically, both are dead ends. Similarly, how long did newspaper publishers remain blind and deaf to the digital advertising revolution? And how much longer can department stores and the automobile industry ignore their own ‘best before’ date?

Mr. Jain’s insight should be a kick in the pants to those clinging to the old notion, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is a wake-up call to all of us in business today, from solopreneurs to Fortune 500 executives.

Today, existing products, processes and services shouldn’t be revisited because they’re broken; they should be reviewed, criticized and redesigned because technology and competitive forces have put them on the road to obsolescence.

As an entrepreneur and innovation catalyst, I’m always prodding my clients to look for the next, logical opportunity to bring to market or new processes to explore. Every company today must build a business, if not a business model, that embraces, encourages and promotes a rigorous approach to recognizing new market realities.

Don’t take my word for it. The need for proactive innovation was identified in a 2011 Harvard Business Review interview with Columbia professor Rita Gunther McGrath, who referred to “the increasing speed of everything,” and the emerging notion of inter-industry competition and disruption.

“Competition is coming from unexpected places,” McGrath said. “Who could have anticipated that the iPad’s success would put all kinds of display devices – like electronic photo frames – out of business?”

If you’re counting on entrepreneurial energy to drive your business forward, don’t just look to the top. Innovation depends on engagement and inclusiveness. It requires the executive suite working with middle management and valuing input from the lower ranks, which are usually the most customer-facing. The best innovators also create channels for learning directly from their customers – and yes, they value criticism. Innovation often comes from small teams that tend to work against the company culture rather than with its blessing.

Disruption is upon us, whether we like it or not. A New York Times article described “Google’s Lab of Wildest Dreams.” The story noted, “in an undisclosed Bay Area location where robots run free, the future is being imagined … It’s a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the Internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you’re eating … These are just a few of the dreams being chased at Google X, the clandestine lab where Google is tackling a list of 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas.“

More conventional innovators are also gearing up. 3M says it has Innovation Centers of Technical Excellence in over 30 countries. “Through dynamic displays and interactive, hands-on demonstrations, customers come to our innovation centers to collaborate with 3M experts and explore creative solutions to help their businesses grow and succeed.” I was surprised to learn, through 3M’s Twitter feed, that the company introduces more than 500 new products each year .

While most entrepreneurs and managers can’t all afford the Google X dream, or even a single innovation centre, we can still tap the resources that we have, and they are not insignificant.

Begin by transforming your regular sales and marketing meetings into business development meetings by including innovation on every agenda. Think big, think different and think customer. Don’t limit yourself.

The first step is to task all team members to bring in new ideas – exciting things they see happening both within your marketplace and in other industries. Encourage everyone to attend business conferences, seminars, workshops, and peer groups, and to listen more closely (and more often) to customers in order to increase idea flow and generation. This step keeps new ideas and opportunities on the front burner every week, rather than relegate them to the old once-a-year corporate retreat.

The second step is to identify the ideas that your team believes have merit and to assign each project a leader or, as I prefer to call it, an ‘opportunity champion.’ Have them approach the opportunity with the same rigour you would any traditional project: present status reports and solicit input from the group. This helps you keep track of ideas and live projects, and also builds a more engaged team – there’s nothing quite as motivating as involvement and feedback to let people know that their voices are being heard and their ideas implemented.

And don’t be afraid to bring in some of your customers for a show-and-tell, as 3M does. Customers are the people who buy what you sell. Their vote actually counts the most in the room.

In 2011, I wrote a column for The Globe & Mail entitled, “Make yourself obsolete, or someone else will.“ Today that article should probably be titled, “You’re already obsolete. What are you waiting for?”

Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works Inc. , is a branding and innovation thought leader who helps organizations reimagine their futures. His second co-authoured book on innovation, Cause a Disturbance ( www.causeadisturbance.com ), is due to be released Fall 2013.

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You Wouldn’t Change the Oil in Your Car Just Once a Year

Innovation Insights
One of a series by Ken Tencer, Spyder Works CEO

innovation-not-invention

Innovation is about bringing ideas to market rather than letting them languish on a half-forgotten scratchpad. And innovation doesn’t necessarily mean invention. More often, it’s about acting on an opportunity you have already recognized, or adapting existing solutions for other markets or industries.

How simple can innovation be? Consider these examples:

Seeing the same thing in a different way
Think of the publicity coup for Post’s Shreddies – and its 18-point gain in market share – when it reintroduced the timeless breakfast cereal in diamond shapes rather than squares.

Exploring new markets with the same products (or slightly adapted features)
Toy giant Lego has launched a “Lego Friends” brand to target girls in addition to its dominating “boy brands,” such as Star Wars Lego and Lego Ninjago.

Tapping into (or teaming up with) new market trends
Hyundai now provides a multimedia tablet as an owner’s manual instead of the traditional printed book.

Bringing together features from existing products or markets to create something “new”
The maker of SLAP Watch offers a unique twist on silicone watches with interchangeable faces, bright colours, and spring-coil bracelet – all in one item.

Innovation is the engine that drives your business forward. Think about it: customers are engaged by new and exciting products and services. It gives them something to talk about, a reason to buy again, and more often.

You wouldn’t change the oil in your car just once a year – the engine would sputter and die. Your company shouldn’t leave ideation, innovation or the introduction of new – even small – improvements to an annual schedule. Without the tune-up of continuing innovation, your business will also sputter and die.

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Use big ideas to get your mojo back

Originally published as a Special to Globe and Mail Update on March 21, 2012

the globe and mail canada

Mea culpa.

As a relentless cheerleader for innovation, I have harped on its importance as a stimulus for competitive advantage and organic growth. What I may have forgotten to tell business owners is that innovation is also fun.

It’s the coconut-cream pie after dinner. It’s the trip to the toy department after buying socks and underwear.

Spending time with entrepreneurs has taught me that they share a desire to create something new. An essential strand in their DNA compels them to cause a disturbance by shaking up their marketplace and filling a void. But my sense is that some entrepreneurs tend to lose that killer instinct as their role evolves from disruptor to operator and manager. They spend more time and energy doing what they have to do rather than what they are wired to do.

Instead of guilting business owners into embracing innovation, I’m going to remind them that their instinct for discovery and disruption is the reason they became entrepreneurs in the first place. Big ideas made them happy. And big ideas can put the bounce back into their step, and the rev in their revenue statements.

It’s never a bad idea to do what you’re best at, and what you love to do.

To all the entrepreneurs chained to their desks and baffled by their own bureaucracy, my suggestion is simple: offload a bunch of operational responsibilities onto someone who loves them, and focus your passion on the next epiphany or invention that’s pinging around in your right brain.

Even if an idea doesn’t turn into a full-fledged profit centre, the discovery process will energize you and infect the people around you. Once you reassert yourself as your company’s chief innovation officer, you’ll inspire your team to start thinking about possibilities, rather than simply punching in and out.

We all know what innovative cultures can do. You’ve seen companies such as Google, Apple and Virgin thrive and grow under the leadership of original thinkers. You’ve seen upstarts such as Under Armour and Spanx shake up the stodgy underwear industry, with the leaders of both companies recently vaulting onto the latest Forbes magazine “billionaire’s list.”

Give yourself and your people permission to imagine and explore new ideas – even if they’re only process improvements. Questioning the status quo is always beneficial. By rediscovering your own eureka muscles, you can lift the spirits of your people and your business’s bottom line.

You’ll have more fun and your people will feel more invested in the company.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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