Innovation is certainly at the forefront of priorities for nearly all businesses. Everyone is searching for that competitive advantage, the next big thing, so surely there are ways to assist us in finding it? Is there a roadmap? Can ingenuity, imagination, creativity and resourcefulness be taught? Or are there other means of coming up with innovative ideas in business?
Whether you are looking to solve a problem, needing to keep ahead of your competition or simply striving to think of innovative business ideas, this process is usually not mandated, policy driven or the result of schematic activity. The big mistake many people make is trying to systematise something that requires the opposite of a system. It requires creativity.
So where does one get great business ideas? The answer is there is no specific ‘place’, but it does require two essential ingredients. The first is having the right headspace, and the second is connecting otherwise unconnected areas, or exploring the unfamiliar.
Firstly let’s look at headspace. We often hear stories of people coming up with great ideas in the shower or on a plane, and there is nothing intrinsically creativity-generating in these spaces. Nor are artificially created workspaces with colored walls and beanbags going to generate the big ‘aha’ moments. If it was as easy as being in the shower, then every morning, everyone in the country would be coming up with new innovations; clearly this isn’t what happens. The point is to find the environment that works for you to get the headspace to allow creativity to occur.
Headspace to deliberate and reflect on certain ideas is essential. It is simply not possible to allow yourself to be creative while at your desk simultaneously on a conference call, texting on your mobile, while trying to read an email as a colleague is asking you for a quick moment. You need to be in a clear frame of mind to allow ideas to manifest and grow into something tangible. Not a fleeting thought between calendar alerts.
Why is this the case? The truth is, is that nobody understands how this really works, but what we do know is that creativity is not about applied conscious effort, the way we could for example sit down and tackle a complex mathematical problem. On the contrary, a truly innovative ‘aha’ moment, no matter what anyone tells you, is a mystery. It pops into our head from somewhere unknown, a perfect collision of neurons that happen to reveal an insight. Once we have the conscious awareness, it seems so obvious, why didn’t I think of it earlier, but that real ingenuity needs the space to work its way to our conscious self.
The second ingredient is experiencing connecting the unconnected or unfamiliar. Two examples I like to mention is Ikea’s great innovation of a structured journey all customers must take through their stores. This actually wasn’t invented by Ikea, it existed, only in a totally unconnected way. The founder saw this process while holidaying in New York and visiting the Guggenheim Museum. The genius was in questioning why a retail store couldn’t or shouldn’t work in the same way as this museum.
Nobody would have thought to say: “Go the Guggenheim and your new business idea will come to mind!” – which is my point, you never know where an unfamiliar encounter will generate that ‘aha!’ moment.
The second example is the suitcase. Imagine going back 30 years and watching travellers in an airport. What would you notice about everyone’s carry-on bag and suitcase? You would immediately notice passengers awkwardly struggling to lift and move all their bags, none of which would have been on wheels. When was the wheel invented? Likely somewhat sooner than luggage! Fast-forward to today and every suitcase is on wheels. Neither the bag nor the wheel was a new invention; the only innovation was in successfully combining the two together.
So, in putting these concepts together, the best approach to innovation is getting out of your comfort zone, and being mindful of your surroundings. You never know when something seemingly unconnected could be the inspiration for the next big thing. If I was a retailer looking for inspiration on innovation or trend forecasting, the last thing I would do is attend a retailer’s conference or read an article about retailing. I might do a case study on Google for example, a hot bed of creativity. Or maybe spend time inside a logistics company to work out how to drive greater distribution efficiencies.
On the other hand, if I were at Google, in many ways disconnected from direct contact with customers, I might spend time at one of the most successful customer service organisations in hospitality, the Four Seasons.
We can be inspired from every industry, every company and in fact, every person we come into contact with. All we really need is to have is an open mind.
By Mat Jacobson, founder of Ducere