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:

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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Sleight of Handset


As an advocate of innovation and an early adopter of all things technology, I am thrilled that my mobile phone can let me book a restaurant reservation, GPS me to a destination, take crystal-clear high definition photographs, check the stock listings, return e-mails and update my Twitter account.  I am not thrilled that it drops calls and distorts voices, especially when I’m talking to a client.

In the early years of brick-sized cell phones, pocket sized cell phones and flip phones that were small enough for dogs to swallow, we tended to forgive phone call quality in the name of amazing convenience.  But now, when I can even program my PVR from another country with my mobile phone, I am losing my patience.  In their furiously innovative stampede to add new functions to mobile phones, the telecom sector has distracted us from the appliance’s main purpose, which is having a clear conversation with another human being.

If I have an important phone call scheduled, my default device is a land line.  Such is the importance of nuance, tone of voice and even pauses, that a mobile phone just isn’t reliable or present enough to be sure that I’ve heard everything I need to hear.  What does this have to do with innovation?  Well, I guess innovation is also about getting things right.  The auto makers have done it with diesel engines.  Microsoft seems to have done it with control-alt-delete-free operating systems.  Now, in a personal appeal, I am asking telecoms to do the same thing with mobile voice communication.

I harken back to those wonderful Verizon commercials where a guy with a cell phone would find remote locations and ask, ‘Can you hear me now?’  A decade later, I shouldn’t have to ask the same question.  If you want a clear competitive advantage, cell phone companies, make a better telephone.

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How far can Apple fall from the tree?


The recent tumble of Apple’s stock raises an interesting question: How far can the price of the stock fall relative to the value of Apple’s most inherent strength, its ability to innovate?

No one knows exactly how much value investors attribute to a company’s innovative capacity and how much of that is reflected in the stock. Apple’s precipitous decline to $457.19 a share (January 29, 2013), compared to a 52 week high of $705, is more about ‘expectations’ for revenues and profits than the intangible of innovation. In January, expectations remained high despite the fact that Apple executives tried to downplay them. On November 26, 2012, John Dobosz of Forbes cited Marc Gerstein who had Apple as “Sell” and he said, “Apple stocks could slip further.” Now, after a quarterly report in which the numbers were good, just not good enough, the questions have started. Has Apple lost its edge? Will the competition make inroads? Why aren’t new products creating the same buzz? Has the bloom worn off the iPhone?

In the smartphone market, Samsung, who serves more of the lower-end market, has long been in Apple’s rearview mirror even though their phones outsold Apple in 2012, 233 million to 133 million. And Samsung’s fourth-quarter results exceeded expectations with an 89% increase in operating profit and 76% in net profit. Who’s hunting whom?

When it comes to innovation, Samsung’s approach is different than Apple’s. Simone Foxman, business writer for Atlantic Media’s Quartz, reports, “Samsung sees itself as less inventor than innovator. It builds on technologies already in the marketplace and remains open to others.”  That’s what I call ‘simple-adaptive’ innovation in that they develop products incrementally based on what they know rather than focusing on ‘disrupting’ the marketplace with transformational products. That’s Apple’s game.

Both simple-adaptive and focused-disruptive strategies work, and ideally companies want to be good at both. Now, for these two giants, it may be a question of whether Apple can become more incremental while maintaining its Steve Job’s transformational capability and whether Samsung can move beyond incremental and leapfrog into higher-end markets. It will depend a lot on their capacity to innovate. Time will tell. In the meantime, some expectation of their innovative capability will be evident in the stock price.

Innovation is in the DNA of a company and its people, and that doesn’t change with quarterly results. In Apple’s case, it may well intensify their innovative quest for the next game-changer. And when it comes to expectations, I wouldn’t bet on the apple falling too far from the tree that Steve planted.

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