This month I’ve planted some seeds about innovation that I hope will inspire you to create “the next big thing” in your industry before your competitors do.  I hear a lot of outdated beliefs at speaking events about what innovation is really all about; so, to finish up the month, let’s tackle 3 myths about innovation and get them out of the way with some colorful case studies that illustrate the vast difference between invention and innovation.

Myth #1:  Innovation is time-consuming, expensive, and risky

Invention and innovation are two different things.  Invention produced the Segway after years of big money and a huge team of engineers –  a cool idea that was supposed to change the world, but has sold a fraction of the units originally forecast, and only in niche markets. The Segway was an invention focused on functional enhancements that did not serve any real market need.

CASE STUDY: The various car-share services such as Zipcar are innovation.  Nobody reinvented the car –  these firms realized that customers were looking for a different way to use a car.  They wanted to buy transportation, not a vehicle.  Uber and LYFT did the same thing, realizing that the world didn’t need another taxi company.  Innovation saves time, saves money, solves a real problem, creates a feel-good experience, and provides peace of mind –  innovation is “warm” more often than it’s “cool”.  However, taxis, car-shares, and Uber-type services are just the start of innovation in transportation…  The next step is going to be the battle to dominate the inevitable driverless car evolution.  Who will win?  What innovations will be required to dominate the market?  This is a great think-outside-the-box exercise to ask your leadership team.

How ELSE could your customers use YOUR product or service?

Myth #2:  Hit it out of the ballpark innovation is the best source of competitive advantage

Doing 100 small things that add value for your customers is lower risk, lower cost innovation that’s more immediately commercially viable than looking for the next big thing.   And, its harder for your competitors to copy!  Several car-share services in Vancouver were innovative in their own right, yet quickly became undifferentiated, with very basic seats-4 vehicles.  Then, things changed.

CASE STUDY: Car share service Evo “innovated” by understanding the Vancouver lifestyle and equipping their “seats 5” vehicles with bike and ski racks –  a big competitive advantage over others without that equipment.  Car2Go innovated by using Mercedes’ Smart Car “2 seater with no trunk space” to solve the problem of tight urban parking spots.

Both companies solved a real challenge that prevented drivers from embracing the car share model.  They did it in completely different ways, targeting completely different audiences.

Which audience within your target market are YOU targeting?  If your answer is “everyone”… you’ve missed the boat.

Myth #3:  Employees must be incented to come up with good ideas

The “Suggestion Box”.  Ugh.  “Think-Outside-the-Box, People”.  Ugh.  The weird, wonderful, or well-intentioned ideas that result from these outdated approaches are rarely innovative.  Incentive programs tend to be unwieldy and ineffective by the time the ideas are evaluated by a committee for implementation or compensation purposes.  Yet people are born problem-solvers.  Turn them loose on a real problem that your customers have identified, and you’ll find they’re already motivated to innovate.

CASE STUDY: Goretex is a pioneer in innovative fabrics.  They give their employees up to 20% of their time each week to simply focus on the next big thing.  Like Apple and Patagonia (with similar programs), their employees are also customers who use the product, so they know where innovation is needed.  There are similar programs at leading innovators like 3M; however, their employees are typically NOT users of the products, so instead they need to get close to their customers to really see the problems and challenges to be solved.  Want to learn exactly what information you need to learn about your customers to inspire your employees to get busy spotting innovation opportunities? Think about applying for ProfitU,  and learn how conducting Value Creation Conversations with your largest customers will give you all the insights you need for true innovation.

Do you readily give your employees lots of time to spend on email each day but struggle to create “down time” for them to innovate?  What would happen if you challenged them to spend the same amount of time on both?

Takeaways

The bottom line is that innovation is often easier than we think.  It’s a matter of understanding the problem or need your product or service is being “hired” to help with, and then doing it better than anyone else in the market, whether that is creating better products or creating a better experience.  Focusing on the experience is often the fastest path to the cash –  lower risk, lower-cost commercial success that doesn’t require a hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark win.

#1 Bestselling Author, International Speaker, and Accelerator Anne C. Graham is on a mission to help business leaders and their teams double their profit per employee – or more – in less than one year, in less time per week than they’re spending on email per day. Her #1 Best selling book Profit in Plain Sight includes the 5-step proactive P.R.O.F.I+T Roadmap to do it.  Connect with Anne on LinkedIn.