The most innovative companies didn’t get where they are by doing the same old, same old.
In February, AmeriQuest Business Services held its annual Symposium in Orlando, Florida. One of the speakers at the event was Doug Stephens, one of the foremost retail industry futurists, who has worked with some of the world’s largest corporations, including Home Depot, Citibank, eBay, BMW, Disney, Walmart, and others. Although his focus is predominantly on retail, his speech at the Symposium focused on disruption. Whether you’re a B2B or B2C enterprise, disruption is a potential danger that’s always lurking, ready to pop up and make your company, and possibly your very industry, obsolete, as we’ve posted in earlier blogs.
Stephens gave the example of Blockbuster/Netflix to illustrate his topic. Those of us who “binge watch” know how Netflix totally disrupted not just the DVD market, but the very concept of episodic television. While Netflix was making its moves, Stephens explained how Blockbuster rested on its own success, resulting in the myopia that didn’t allow it to see what was coming. Steeped in the old; focused on protection of a paradigm rather than the change that was necessary and responding incrementally rather than exponentially led Blockbuster down its final path.
Stephens’ presentation was focused on why and how companies should encourage and motivate innovation within their own enterprise and took an unusual approach. Instead of talking about what companies should do, he focused on what they shouldn’t do:
- DON’T innovate with the wrong people – Creative people aren’t necessary suited for leadership positions. Why? Stephens explained that leadership is about certainty, while innovation, by its very nature, means uncertainty. That’s why management at companies (think Blockbuster again) would rather use techniques that don’t work instead of those they don’t understand.
- DON’T ask for innovation and risk-taking if you only reward compliance and success – People who change things…who create new paradigms…who disrupt…don’t follow the rules. So if you want to foster innovation, encourage people to challenge the rules and create a safe haven for failure. That’s because, if you’re a creative person, you learn from failure and glean productive insights; that could lead to the next innovative idea which might be a huge success.
- DON’T discourage bad ideas – As Stephens said, “Great ideas are good ideas that seem like bad ideas.” Imagine allowing people to rent your apartment for a night instead of going to a hotel (Airbnb) or purchasing someone’s old throwaways online (eBay) or letting strangers drive other strangers to their destination point for money (Uber).
- DON’T innovate only when you want to innovate – Creativity is an ongoing process that you can’t measure with a stopwatch. Brainstorming sessions may seem like a good idea, but the problem is that innovation isn’t an answer for a problem…innovation is a question: “what are the possibilities of?” and “what if?”
- DON’T innovate vertically – Since you’re not walking a brand new path, your end results may end up being indiscernible from one another. The results may be good…they may even be somewhat successful. What they’re not is innovative. What you should do is innovate horizontally.
- DON’T aim for the middle – Stephens talked about the fact that markets used to want the average; the mid-tier ruled. Now the middle just evaporates. Think of Chipotle vs. McDonalds and then think of these words that Stephens used to characterize each: fidelity vs utility; exclusive vs. ubiquitous; concierge vs. self-service; niche appeal vs. broad appeal. Now you need to ask yourself where you want to be. What position do you take in your marketplace?
- DON’T start with what you sell – “We live in a world of one-click satisfaction,” stated Stephens. People may not necessarily need what you sell; they need to know why and how you sell it. Patagonia sells outdoor clothing and gear; so do other retailers; but Patagonia stands for something special. As their mission statement says, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Chipotle doesn’t just sell food; it sells “food with integrity.” And Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee and a place to sit; it strives to promote ideas that inspire and nurture the human spirit.
Innovation can be a scary undertaking for risk-averse companies, but standing still and hoping you won’t face disruption is not a viable option in today’s business environment. The bottom line, according to Stephens, and the big idea that he left with Symposium attendees was this: Stop competing…start re-imagining.
How are you fostering innovation in your company today?