Let me postulate on why it may be difficult to be innovative…it seems as we journey through life, we pick a profession and become so specialized that we lose much of the mental versatility that allows us to view problems from different points of view. Even though we start out as very open and highly adaptable creatures, we are steered into specialization by social and economic forces. This even leads us to personally define ourselves by a profession…such as a nurse, a doctor, an engineer, a computer programmer, a politician, a lawyer, etc. Most of these professions force us to strengthen one set of skills, while letting other
skills languish or go dormant. We have to practice the one skill we are good at and rely on other people for the skills or qualities we have not developed.
However, not exercising the versatility that makes us human can lead to a mundane space where…we have to listen to professional musicians sing because we can’t carry a tune, we watch professional athletes play basketball because we haven’t learned the techniques and are out of shape, we hire contractors because we can’t wield a hammer, etc. And innovation? Well, we leave that up to rock stars like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.
As a father of four, I have realized through my children that everyone has unique qualities that can be nurtured and developed over time. I have observed that my kids were born with an innate creativity to do anything they choose…just like most other kids. They have not lost their versatile and agile thinking…yet. Maybe they will never be Picasso, Bono or Michael Jordan, but we still give them permission to find fulfillment in whatever creative endeavors they try.
This is most apparent in my daughter, Alexandria (Alex). First, nothing gets in her way when she makes up her mind to run in a certain direction. And second, I wouldn’t stop her, even if I could. That would only muddle her creative momentum. My goal is to provide a safe environment for her to pursue her passions and an escape route if something “goes south” on her.
She has honed her basic design skills and moved on to the point where she is beyond mimicking others and is able to create truly innovative ideas and unique concepts that delight and resonate emotionally. She is able to take us “into the new” and transform something old and familiar and create something new and surprising. Innovation!
When we lived in Seoul, there were many, many markets. Not just food and spice, but markets for everything. Especially for crafts and trades like printing, electrical lighting, musical instruments, jewelry, culinary arts, candy making,
photography, fashion…and more!
As Alex spent time in these markets, she transformed from tourist to artisan to innovator. She bought lots of supplies, brought them home and started making things…it was endless. She made ceramics, clothing and jewelry…and become more and more proficient in her skills. One thing that became apparent was her innovative style…she was not mimicking what was already on the market, but taking something old and familiar and transforming it into something new and surprising…
What would you do to innovate on earrings? New colors? More expensive stones? Segment your market and sell to different target groups? Use different materials? That is not innovation. That is incremental change.
What would you do to innovate on zippers? Make them waterproof? Use different hardware? Change the shape? Again, that is incremental change.
Now, what Alex did was to take both of these to familiar items and combine them. When you combine the earring and zipper, the contrasting functions of each create a mental dissonance that “tickles” our thinking.
To test the market, Lyra, my wife wears them “out on the town…” The earrings turn peoples’ heads as they try to make sense of what’s dangling on her ears…once they grasp what they are, people are compelled to comment. And a conversation ensues. After Lyra tells the story of Alex, they all want a pair
of their own!
At Strategos, we would call this part of innovation, the experimentation phase. This is where you test whether people are willing to buy through some sort of exchange of value. The value being exchanged is the time people are willing to spend conversing.
Child’s play, you think? There are many business compelling examples of this, but Oxo is a great business case when you think of taking something old and familiar and transforming it into something new and surprising…
Here is the full Oxo story
- Give employees the permission to explore and create
- Provide a safe environment without the fear of failure
- Foster “agile commercialization”, i.e. learn and adapt ideas before commercializing them
These principles sound simple but neglected by most organizations for fear of losing control. The outcome is disappointing results from innovation efforts. Lack of permission and fear of failure often leads to fewer ideas or solutions that are easily accepted and just fit the existing business model. Skipping “agile
commercialization” leads to many product and service introductions that consumers and customers have no need for.
Much of what innovation practitioners do is develop an organization’s confidence through the application of systemic innovation approaches that are built on the above principles. Just as Alex spent many hours acquiring knowledge and expertise, browsing the Seoul markets organizations need to discover different perspectives and insights before identifying new opportunities. As Alex experimented with new designs, testing the market and learning to adapt her ideas, organizations can do the same through agile commercialization.
I can’t wait for Alex’s next idea!