How hard is it to innovate? Not once but over and over? How can you repeatedly implement great new products, processes or services? Continuous innovation is not easy and if you keep using the same method you will experience diminishing results. Try innovating how you innovate by employing some of these ideas.
- Copy someone else’s idea. One of the best ways to innovate is to pinch an idea that works elsewhere and apply it in your business. Henry Ford saw the production line working in a meat packing plant and then applied to the automobile industry thereby dramatically reducing assembly times and costs.
- Ask customers. If you simply ask your customers how you could improve your product or service they will give you plenty of ideas for incremental innovations. Typically they will ask for new features or that you make your product cheaper, faster, easier to use, available in different styles and colours etc. Listen to these requests carefully and choose the ones that will really pay back.
- Observe customers. Do not just ask them, watch them. Try to see how customers use your products. Do they use them in new ways? This was what Levi Strauss saw when they found that customers ripped the jeans – so they brought a line of pre-ripped jeans. Heinz noticed that people stored their sauce jars upside down so they designed an upside down bottle.
- Use difficulties and complaints. If customers have difficulties with any aspect of using your product or if they register complaints then you have a strong starting point for innovations. Make your product easier to use, eliminate the current inconveniences and introduce improvements that overcome the complaints.
- Combine. Combine your product with something else to make something new. It works at all levels. Think of a suitcase with wheels, or a mobile phone with a camera or a flight with a massage.
- Eliminate. What could you take out of your product or service to make it better? Dell eliminated the computer store, Amazon eliminated the bookstore, the Sony Walkman eliminated speakers and record functions.
- Ask your staff. Challenge the people who work in the business to find new and better ways to do things and new and better ways to please customers. They are close to the action and can see opportunities for innovation. Often they just need encouragement to bring forward great ideas.
- Plan. Include targets for new products and services in your business plan. Put it onto the balanced scorecard. Write innovation into everyone’s objectives. Measure it and it will happen.
- Run brainstorms. Have regular brainstorm meetings where you generate a large quantity of new product ideas. Use diverse groups from different areas of the business and include a provocative outsider e.g. a customer or supplier.
- Examine patents. Check through patents that apply in your field. Are there some that you could license? Are some expiring so that you can now use that method? Is there a different way of achieving the essential idea in a patent?
- Collaborate. Work with another company who can take you to places you can’t go. Choose a partner with a similar philosophy but different skills. That is what Mercedes did with Swatch when they came up with the Smart car.
- Minimize or maximize. Take something that is standard in the industry and minimise or maximise it. Ryanair minimized price and customer service. Starbucks maximised price and customer experience. It is better to be different than to be better.
- Run a contest. Ask members of the public to suggest great new product ideas. Offer a prize. Give people a clear focussed goal and they will surprise you with novel ideas. Good for innovation and PR.
- Ask – what if? Do some lateral thinking by asking what if…? Challenge every boundary and assumption that applies in your field. You and your group will come up with amazing ideas once the normal constraints are lifted.
- Watch the competition. Do not slavishly follow the competition but watch them intelligently. The small guys are often the most innovative so see if you can adapt or license one of their ideas – or even buy the company!
- Outsource. Subcontract your new product development challenge to a design company, a University, a start-up or a crowdsourcing site like Innocentive or NineSigma.
- Use open innovation. Big consumer products companies like Procter and Gamble or Reckitt Benckiser encourage developers to bring novel products to them. They are flexible on IP protection and give a clear focus on what they are looking for. A large proportion of their new products now start life outside the company.
- Adapt a product to a new use. Find an entirely different application for an existing product. De Beers produced industrial diamonds but found a new use for diamonds when they introduced the concept of engagement rings. It opened up a large new market for them.
- Try Triz. Triz is a systematic method for solving problems. It can be applied in many fields but is particularly useful in engineering and product design. Triz gives you a toolbox of methods to solve contradictions e.g. how can we make this product run faster but with less power?
- Go back in time. Look back at methods and services that were used in your sector years ago but have now fallen out of use. Can you bring one back in a new updated form? It has been said that Speed Dating is really a relaunch of a Victorian dance format where ladies had cards marked with appointments.
- Use social networks. Follow trends and ask questions on groups like Twitter or Facebook. Ask what people want to see in future products or what the big new idea will be. Many early adopters are active on social network groups and will happily respond with suggestions.
The ways to innovate are legion. Try some approaches that are new to you in order to boost your innovation capability.
Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.