Every solution has a problematic history, by definition. In that sense, the skills behind successful innovation could be framed as the ability to create solutions for problems before anyone realizes what a nuisance they are. Successful innovation is not about dreaming up what would be science fiction today, but about foreseeing what will be plain vanilla tomorrow.
You can imagine most creative professionals do not find that thought particularly motivating, which is why such a large chunk of this discipline appears to be about putting the ‘art’ of being creative up on an ever higher pedestal than the output it generates. Much of the world of innovation is populated by creative gurus, visionary high priests who scatter riddles across 2×2 diagrams to paint your future portfolio. Well, implement creativity like a religion and you’ll need miracles to be successful.
Breakthrough ideas often feed creative egos, not consumer needs. If anything, successful new products and services are like the weather; about 90% the same as yesterday’s products. This isn’t to say the world needs no game changing innovation; it’s merely that too many businesses waste time looking outside the box when their market still has plenty room left to grow and differentiate inside it.
For some of the world’s leading companies and brand teams, success seems based on historical serendipity, luck, or lack of competition. Nevertheless stupendous amounts of money are wasted on turning an innovation project into a show.
Maybe creative capability is genuinely seen as something much more difficult than it really is? Then again, if Edison really meant it being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration he would have invented deodorant. Or GoreTex.
What’s making this all so difficult?
- A belief you need to be uncomfortable to work outside your comfort zone. Funny hats, beanbags and humiliating ‘energizers’. A whole industry has grown around the mantra that in order for people to take creative risk, they should be made to feel even more uneasy than they already are.
- Features rather than benefits? The first decade of the new millennium brought high-end software and technology into consumers’ daily lives, in a way previously unheard of. With it came an insatiable drive for new features in order to provide marginal difference between devices and social media, a trend which seems to be trickling down into physical mass markets. What happened to thinking about benefits first? If anything, added features often introduce another hurdle between a consumer and the benefit they’re trying to get from a product. They also distract attention from the core that’s attracting consumers to your products.
- Re-inventing predecessors’ wheels. In many corporate ecosystems the responsibility for innovation lies with the marketing department, a discipline known for high job rotation. Which from an innovation standpoint is fine, as long as the track record is kept diligently. And often it isn’t. New marketing & brand managers waste plenty of their time redeveloping ideas that have bombed many times before.
- Believing your own spin. In mature FMCG categories, the reality is that everyone needs to push the envelope on what can be claimed in order to stand out from the crowd. But the line between substantiated claims and spin is thin. No problem. Think homeopathy. In practice this leads to claims that sound credible in respect of the brand equity or previous claims, rather than being based on new developments. And that’s when a credible myth all too easily becomes the new benchmark for truth.
- Marketing executive’s lives and their consumers’ lives couldn’t be further apart. Having empathy with your target consumer does not mean bringing to market only the products you’d buy yourself. On the contrary. Corporate professionals dealing with mass market innovation tend to belong to a society’s top 2% income level, with the other 98% being their target. This target is seldom as interested in ‘on-the-go’ or ‘stress relief’ or ‘personalization’ as one may hope.
So what to do?
Well, first of all assume there is a solution for any creative problem and trust that it won’t require black magic to uncover it.
- Make time, not space. You don’t need to be in a Hungarian lakeside castle to be creative. In fact, the environment is mostly irrelevant as long as it’s comfortable – that’s why beds and bathtubs ignite new ideas. What you need most is TIME. Uninterrupted time to work on the innovation task, alone or as a group – to understand the problem, the context and to work on solutions. If you do your homework, a couple of days is often enough to crack even the toughest nuts.
- An un-filtered look at the (consumer) context. All you need is some rigor in pinpointing what the real needs are, for relevant answers to pop out painlessly. Real insight carries far. Note this involves more listening and reading to what consumers actually say and less reading of macro-economic trends or your brand vision deck.
- Cherish the small incremental ideas. Most growth challenges do not require breakthrough solutions. Give small ideas a chance.
- Reality first – then brand equity. Stay in touch with the physical attributes of your product before getting carried away by what you wish were possible. The touch, the smell, the chemistry, the taste, the sounds… Nothing beats a trip to your factory and R&D lab before getting to work on a consumer problem.
Wishful thinking and blue-sky ideation are absolutely fine, but they are a transfer station, not the end destination of your effort. Even the wildest ideas must come back to earth in order to become part of an operational process that can make a business thrive. Just keep your feet on the ground.
image credit: crossfit609.com
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Costas Papaikonomou is Founding Partner of Happen, a global innovation agency based in London, Amsterdam, Toronto, New York, and Sydney.