Innovation: Sometimes It’s a Matter of Looking Beyond the Obvious

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On November 4, 2013

What’s the real source of innovation? Is it really the domain of the “wild and crazy” guys who seem to dream in Technicolor and have imaginations that leave the rest of us poor mortals in the dust? Or can it sometimes be a bit more down-to-earth?

Let’s be honest. Taking what somebody else has done and making it just a little bit better isn’t innovation. And it’s not going to set you apart. But real innovation isn’t necessarily “whizbangery” either. Sometimes innovation is simply a matter of looking beyond the obvious and coming up with something that people really want—instead of delivering what they’ve always gotten.

Let’s look at just a couple of well-known innovators and how they looked beyond the obvious—and changed whole industries.

Apple was in danger of disappearing from the marketplace. Their computer sales were only about 5 percent of the market. What put them back on the map? It was what they did with their iPads and iPhones. The thing is, there were already a plethora of personal music players and cell phones on the market. But Apple made it easy for consumers to use those devices the way they wanted to use them. That made the experience of using a music player or a cell phone fun and exciting. And guess what else happened? People were so knocked out by their positive experiences with iPads and iPhones that they started checking out what Apple was doing in personal computing as well.

Starbucks certainly wasn’t the first company to sell strong, expensive coffee. People have been drinking coffee and visiting coffee houses for a long time. But Starbucks focused on more than the beans. They zeroed in on the experience. They created an atmosphere that people wanted—and they kept that experience consistent no matter where the Starbucks coffee shop was located.

Tesla jumped into the auto industry at a time when people were wondering if the American auto industry would collapse. And while their exclusive production of electric vehicles certainly made them different, electric cars have been around for a while. But they’ve never been cool. Sure some people loved the environmental friendliness of an electric car, but they hated the geekiness and sluggishness of existing electric vehicles. Tesla combined environmental consciousness with world-class engineering—and performance. And Tesla is still pushing that envelope, having recently announced their new SUV that combines the utility and space of a minivan with sleek design of a sedan (minivans always went into negative numbers when it came to being cool). And guess what? This new family car is faster than a Porche 911!

Nest: Took something mundane—the boring household thermostat—and made it deliver what people really wanted: something that automatically controls temperatures in the home and saves money. And they took it a step further. Not only is it programmable, it actually learns your heating and cooling patterns. Plus, it has a really cool design so it actually looks good hanging on your wall. Nest is now hard at work on CO2 and smoke detectors that look great, diagnose themselves, and don’t go off in the middle of the night (or the middle of your dinner party) for no reason at all.  It’s probably not a big surprise that this successful company was started by a bunch of guys who got their start at Apple!

The point in all of this is that none of these companies “reinvented the wheel.” And yet, there’s no question that they are innovative. They looked beyond the obvious solutions that others in their industry were delivering—and went to the heart of what consumers really wanted. And they did it with a commitment to excellence.

At your next planning meeting, try taking a little time to brainstorm about what the customers in your industry really want. Don’t focus on polishing your product or making it “2 percent more effective.” Look beyond the obvious and figure out how to give your customers the experience they really want.