We usually think of a light bulb as a single unit. But it is actually a combination of several technologies. If it is a compact fluorescent lamp, it consists of a glass enclosure with a fluorescent coating, argon and mercury vapor, and integrated ballast. If it is a conventional incandescent light bulb, it consists of a glass enclosure, filament, vacuum, inert gas, and base. Most innovations, including a majority of patents, similarly represent combinations—often new combinations—of existing technologies.

From the stone axe to the smartphone, virtually all innovation has been due to people combining existing technologies in new, useful ways. To succeed as innovators, we need to develop two skills: 1) recognize unsatisfied customer needs and 2) discover and combine technologies in new ways to satisfy those needs.

Recognize customer needs.

If customers are aware of and can articulate a need, great; but you may need to discover the need and create that awareness in them yourself. Few iPad customers realized they had a need for a tablet device when they saw it for the first time. To discover customer needs, first seek to understand people’s goals, objectives, or dreams, and the obstacles to any or all of them. IBM’s account execs, once hailed as the most professional sales force in the world, recited this mantra with their customers: “How much, by when?” That is, how much in the way of benefits (e.g., productivity gains or cost savings) did the customers want to achieve by when? The account execs were asking for their customer’s objectives and goals. Armed with that knowledge, account execs could propose IT solutions that (at least arguably) delivered those benefits within that time. Similarly, knowing your prospective customers’ goals, desires, or dreams, together with their current states, tells you their needs. Technologies can be combined and applied in myriad ways, but if they don’t address real needs -- “pain points” -- even the most leading-edge of them won’t create value.

Combine technologies to address needs.

Thanks to Moore’s Law, technologies are advancing exponentially. Many worry about people's ability to cope with these changes. At first blush, it might seem that growing technological complexity would mean that ever more knowledge and experience is necessary to work with these systems. But technology also reduces complexity by enabling smarter, simpler tools that require less knowledge to use, in effect lowering many barriers to entry for aspiring technologists. Decades ago, programming was an esoteric cult; today, virtually anyone can learn Python or HTML. Amazon Web Services and Heroku simplify setting up and running web services; front-end design frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation allow designers with only limited training to create high-quality websites. Application programming interfaces (APIs) streamline access to popular online services such as Twitter and Slack, and platforms like Salesforce Lightning App Builder enable even non-programmers to build sophisticated custom applications. So chances are you know or have access to many more technologies than you may realize.

All of the companies I have founded or co-founded can be seen as combining existing technologies in novel ways. In 1992, my first company, Decisive Technology (now part of Google), “combined” the idea of surveys first with text email messages, and later with HTML, to create online questionnaires. Our product, Decisive Survey, used Windows for survey design and analytics. In 1997, my second company, CustomerSat (now part of Confirmit), changed platforms from Windows to the web and added case management, business rules, and dashboards to pioneer enterprise feedback management. In 2014, my third company, Pyze, again changed platforms from web to mobile devices, and expanded from attitudinal (survey) data to include behavioral, GPS, and technographic data, to deliver user insights.

What you combine may be technologies, expertise, or both. Say you have expertise in both fashion and multiplayer games. Would multiplayer games having to do with fashion satisfy a customer need? Or say you are into tourism and aerospace. Would there be demand for tourism to rocket-launching sites or for tourist travel into space? Or say you know about polymers and love cooking. Could polymers enhance the cooking process, health benefits, or flavor of food? 

The more technologies you know and different forms of expertise you have, the more combinations you can consider. Each new technology or expertise you become familiar with roughly doubles the number of combinations at your disposal. So challenge yourself to become at least familiar with each new technology you encounter that might be relevant to the customer needs you might address.

Developing these two foundational skills – recognizing customer needs and finding new combinations of technologies and expertise to address them – turns you into a highly sought after professional: one who can innovate. Continuously expand the list of technologies you are knowledgeable about and combine those technologies in novel ways to create valuable solutions. See my book, Unleash Your Inner Company, for details. Before you realize it, you’ll be an innovator!


Serial entrepreneur John Chisholm is head of San Francisco-based John Chisholm Ventures, an entrepreneurial advisory and angel investment firm. He is immediate past president/chair of the worldwide MIT Alumni Association and a trustee of MIT and the Santa Fe Institute. He is author of the Amazon best-seller, Unleash Your Inner Company.