product innovation

The twist-off beer cap and nine other simple innovations that surprise and delight

Originally published on December 29, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail:

I read a great phrase the other day: “Innovation is not renovation.” I couldn’t agree more. Innovation goes beyond slapping a new coat of paint on a product or service. It’s about finding ways to add real value for your customers. Value that makes their lives better, easier or less complicated.

Many business leaders shy away from innovation because they think it needs to be complicated. In reality, the process is easier than they think because successful innovation harnesses the obvious.

The essence of innovation lies in understanding what clients need and capitalizing on market shifts. It’s about continually re-engaging customers by meeting their changing preferences, often before they even realize those needs have changed.

Companies should start by recognizing their many opportunities to practice easy, effective innovation. The following 10 examples may reset your brain. They’ll help you see how simple it can be to develop new products, services and processes that will make a splash in any market.

The common theme? All 10 of these examples surprise and delight customers by solving problems, old or new. When you spend day and night obsessing over customers’ needs, innovation really becomes an exercise in bringing the obvious to life.

The twist-off beer cap

Even though the twist-off cap has been around for 50 years, it remains a pre-eminent example of simple yet game-changing innovation. I was working with a group of engineers not long ago and asked them to suggest simple innovations that have changed their lives. The twist-off beer cap was their favourite. Before twist-offs were commonplace, life was harsh and cruel. Using the engineers’ words (not mine), once you misplaced the bottle opener early in the evening at a university party, you spent far too long searching for it through the night.

Side-mirror sensors

I’ve yet to drive one of the new self-parking cars, so I will cite an automotive innovation that’s a little more mainstream: the side-mirror sensors that light up when a car is in your blind spot and blink when you put your turn signal on. An ingenious step forward in driver safety.

Coffee sleeves

Simple, obvious, wildly inexpensive – yet only invented in 1993. These finger-saving pieces of textured paperboard may be the most elegant innovation of all.

Selfie stick: If people are going to insist on taking photographs of themselves and their friends, why not help them take better photographs of themselves and their friends? A classic example of a lightning-quick response to a sudden behaviour shift.

Netflix, Nook and Kindle

We are no longer patient people. So instead of making us visit a storefront or wait for delivery, these powerful enablers of entertainment allow us to access any movie, TV series, video game or book we want … now!


This global room-renting, house-sharing app lets you choose precisely the accommodation you want. It’s cost-effective for users and a new business model for owners. A classic case of disintermediation.

Remote car starter

Hey, this is Canada. On a cold, dark winter morning, a warmed-up car may not make your day perfect. But it’s a hell of a good start.

Tide Pods

No more searching for the scoop and guessing how much detergent to use. Set and forget: Someone else has done all the work.

HOV lanes

As long as we have internal combustion engines, fewer cars on those roads is good for the planet. Rewarding drivers for sharing the ride with passengers makes eminent sense.

Personal service

There is nothing better than high-quality service to build customer loyalty. One of Canada’s foremost service practitioners is Longo’s, an independent Ontario grocery chain. When a customer asks where an item is, Longo’s policy is not to have an employee just point to the right aisle, but to walk customers to the exact shelf where the product sits. At a Longo’s recently, I watched an elderly shopper ask for help. Longo’s team member led her to the right location, and then re-arranged the goods in the basket of her walker to assuage the customer’s fear that her softer groceries might get damaged. Little things make a big difference.

If you’re out to make a difference in your market, you’ll face two well-known barriers to change: the naysayers who argue “That’ll never work,” and those who say “We don’t have time to innovate.” Ignore the doubts. Innovation is easy when you target real needs with inexpensive, intuitive solutions. Look for simple wins. And keep the breakthroughs coming.

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The Pizza Saver and nine other innovations that surprise and delight

Originally published on August 12, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail:

Many business leaders shy away from innovation because they think it’s too complicated, but in reality, the process is easier than they think. Successful innovation harnesses the obvious.

The essence of innovation lies in understanding consumer needs and capitalizing on market shifts. It’s about continually re-engaging customers by meeting their changing wants and needs, even before they realize they’re changing.

Companies should start by recognizing the many practical, easy and effective examples of innovation. The following 10 examples will set your brain spinning and help you see how simple it can be to develop new products, services and processes that make a splash in any market.

The common theme? They’re all examples of ways to surprise and delight customers by addressing one of their challenges.

1. Pizza Saver: Seriously? The mundane little table-like plastic part that holds the top of the box away from the pizza? For those who suffered through university with pizza stuck to the inside of cardboard boxes, life has never been the same. Kids today have no idea how good they have it, but Carmela Vitale does. She was awarded a patent for this three-legged wonder in 1985.

2. Cakepop: Credit Angie ‘Bakerella’ Dudley for this delightful creation. The lollipop-type pastry is bright, fun, engaging and a wonderful treat. It will never be mistaken for health food, but it’s a huge improvement over a big slab of cake, and the on-the-go ease of the lollipop stick is perfect for today’s hectic pace.

3. Double-window drive-through: If the drive-through wasn’t already fast food’s answer to our busy lifestyles, the double window was the icing on the cake. The second window lets restaurants separate the money exchange from food service, saving time and reducing friction. Simple, yes, but a nice addition to the customer experience.

4. Taco Bell’s breakfast taco waffle: Behold, a taco-shaped waffle shell wrapped around a sausage patty or bacon, with scrambled eggs and cheese, served with syrup. Why did this make the list? Taco Bell has finally figured out an in-brand way to extend its hours of operation and generate more revenue per square foot. Operating leverage is a tasty treat for every business.

5. Wheels on suitcases: Thank you, Bernard Sadow, for introducing these babies in 1970 (despite the fact he was turned down by countless department-store buyers). What traveller wants to lug 50 pounds of baggage through never-ending airport terminals? For the record, it took humanity a year longer to put wheels on suitcases than it did to put a man on the moon.

6. The HondaVAC vaccum cleaner in the Honda Odyssey: This was a tough one. Do busy families choose the Dodge Caravan’s Stow ‘N Go seats, which let you create more storage space in your minivan without having to haul out the seats? Or do they choose the Odyssey, with its built-in Shop-Vac ready to clean up every little spill? Choice is good.

7. Velcro shoes: For those too young or too old to fuss around with laces, and for their care-givers, Velcro closures are a game changer. They make the great outdoors more accessible than ever. Plus, a shout-out for Velcro jumping, where you slip into a full-body Velcro suit and leap onto Velcro-covered walls, just for the heck of it.

8. Self-sealing envelopes: For those entrepreneurs who used to end each business day writing out cheques and licking their tongues raw – what took so long?

9. The Post-It note: It’s the semi-sticky poster child for simple, breakthrough innovations. But with 3M producing 50 billion of these a year, how can we ignore it? Especially since the humble Post-It brand has now become the national sponsor of the speed-innovating phenomenon known as Startup Weekend.

10. Squeezable jars: Whether you’re pouring mayonnaise, jam, honey, or ketchup, the squeezable jar is welcome relief for every meal. Old brands such as Britain’s Marmite spread are finding new life in plastic packaging. Little things make a big difference.

If you’re out to make a difference in your market, you’ll face two well-known barriers to change: the naysayers who argue “that’ll never work” or those who say “we don’t have time to innovate.” Ignore them. Target a problem. Look for simple solutions. And keep the innovations coming.

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What do eBay, Coke, Proctor & Gamble, GE, Whirlpool and 3M have in Common?


Recently these companies, and others, participated in the Unleashing Innovation Summit in NYC which I had the pleasure of attending.  There were organizations from around the globe that came together to focus on innovation with an emphasis on people and culture.  It was great to see innovation thought leaders discussing this very critical issue and have them reinforce what I have believed and practiced for over 15 years.  There was lots of sharing of experience on what worked and what didn’t when adopting an innovation focused culture.

So What’s Working…

From the group of participants it appears that companies are doing a good job at identifying the opportunities to address and are managing through the process of innovation rather well.  In their approach, large companies are striving to emulate small company’s entrepreneurism.  Companies are forming non-traditional partnerships and looking within their organization to their employees for solutions to improve the customer experience.  As an example we heard first hand about the success and challenges overcome in the design and launch of Coke Freestyle.  From the experience I have had leading change initiatives, leaders traditionally find the process improvement portion to be the easier part, mastering it more quickly.  This appears to hold true in the evolution of the adoption of innovation.

Today’s Challenges…

From case studies, fireside chats and storytelling we learned that the challenge of ingraining innovation into the culture was a difficult one facing many companies.  Also, the majority of companies are still grappling with the vulnerability of risk.  While we all understand the benefits of “fail, fail fast and fail often” it is still difficult to successfully make that part of an organization’s culture.  A culture where employees are not punished for making mistakes appears to still be a rarity.  Some of the successful cultural initiatives to overcome this we heard about included Innovation Day at United Health Group, Viz Kitchen from eBay and the BASF Cultural Ambassador program as forums to involve employees and even in some cases customers in the innovation process.

As a change leader I’ve found that fully delivering a cultural change takes effort and time.  The effort put forth in ensuring all of the moving parts align can be daunting but pays big dividends.  And affording the needed time to not only do it right the first time but in allowing employees to adapt and adjust is not something you can fast forward through – there just aren’t any short cuts to quality change.

The Future…

For me, the signs are clearer now than ever.  Organizations are looking within for ways to better delight customers, engage employees and impact their bottom line.  For companies wanting to do this through innovation the biggest challenge appears to be fostering a culture of innovation.  For us innovative change agents, our time has come!

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