I believe that it’s an urban myth that in order to be innovative you have to be creative; that out there in the world exists a select cohort of inventors, creative geniuses, spending their every waking hour coming up with the next great idea, whilst the rest of us live grey, unimaginative lives.
When you ask people who they think of when considering the great Innovators, invariably the answers will include people such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell - and perhaps for some who have thought more or read about the topic, the list may also include people such as Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs. The one person no-one would think to include in that list of esteemed inventors is themselves.
This is the point where you’re thinking, ‘she’s mad - everyone an innovator?’. In the formal sense and understanding of invention I agree; it’s not something that everyone would think they’ve done. I have never submitted a patent, I have never created something that has changed the world, certainly not created something that has been put into use and earned me a fortune. Never-the-less, invent I do.
When I’m cooking dinner, and don’t have every ingredient I need for my recipe, I improvise; adding something I’ve used elsewhere previously and know will work. I’m inventing. When I’m tying my tomatoes and using old stockings instead of garden string, I’m inventing. Some might say improvising, but that is a core skill at the heart of inventing.
The Oxford Dictionary defines invention as the action of inventing something, typically a process or device, to create or design (something that has not existed before); to be the originator of. Isn’t life, and our path through it, then a continual coming up with something new? Seeing and absorbing the ideas in play around us and identifying the opportunity for application in different ways, for different outcomes?
Admittedly, both of my examples above are a little light on global impact and, yes, I’m being quite interpretive with the term ‘invention’. My examples assume a process in flow and an alternative way of achieving an outcome. But I’d argue it’s the same principle that inventors use when developing and evolving ideas that break new ground - having a need or challenge, being clear about the target audience (personas) and, I think this is the secret sauce - leveraging inspiration from other sources, linking it together, creating something ‘new’.
Picasso is quoted as having said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, based on his own personal ‘steal’ of using other cultures and art forms to inspire, what was, a new direction for him in his artistic expression.
Picasso isn’t the only person to adopt this principle. From Da Vinci, Guttenberg, to Jobs, the idea of leveraging, ‘stealing’, ideas from outside of your industry, outside of your area of expertise, has been at the heart of the evolution of great ideas, and successful innovation strategies. There are lots of great examples that give this approach credence. Here’s a couple I like...
Without getting into the political or social argument of their business model, Uber, are a great ‘best’ example of the Picasso principle. Kalanick and Camp, and the basis on which they built their model, exemplify the great artists steal mantra. From the starting point of a ‘need’ - needing a taxi - Uber leveraged inspirations such as Amazon, the greatest logistics company, and GPS, a technology capability developed through the cold war, to create a dynamic, real-time supply and demand business.
Taxis, historically a limited resource, managed through a highly regulated industry, have been a high cost business to develop and run. By reframing the problem, finding creative ways to address the resource constraint and leveraging and harnessing other inventions such as available technology and the power of social media, Uber created a different model. They didn’t enter the taxi industry; they didn’t enter the logistics industry - they entered the technology business.
The value of the improvisation and by not being another taxi company, another supply chain company, rather something new. By thinking about their value as a logistics business they're not binding themselves to the constraint of only being a single purpose business; they can in fact be so much more. The Taxi industry could compete, but they’re so stuck in their orthodoxy of what and who they are, they forget the power of the resource they have at their disposal. (And do not get me started on the frustrating orthodoxies that taxi industries in every country still hold dear). That they choose to only take a human passenger, or continue to impose limiting constraints on their operating model will ultimately be their downfall.
Liquid paper is a redundant product today, but a great example of the ‘steal outside your field’ innovation strategy. Bette Nesmith-Graham, a secretary in the forties, created liquid paper to fulfill a specific need - to correct typing errors caused by newer, electronic typewriters and carbon ribbons.
Seeing painters add a layer of paint to correct errors when creating decorative window designs, rather than erase and start again, inspired Nesmith-Graham to find a way to paint over in-flight typing mistakes without having to start again. Initially created for her own use, other secretaries, on seeing the result, started submitting orders for the product.
Whilst these two examples are quite different, both started with a specific problem or challenge; a ‘how might I’ style principle: “How might I get from A to B when no taxis are available?”; “How might I fix an in-flight error without having to start again?”; both borrowed principles, ideas and solutions from other industries to solve the challenge.
So how does this link back to my initial statement that we’re all inventors? We all see and are exposed to great ideas every day. From the apps we all take for granted on our mobile devices, to the experiences we encounter as we go through our daily lives. Everyday I am exposed to, and learn something that I can (and frequently do), apply to other challenges. We all do this in our private lives without even thinking about it.
What we don’t always do is make the leap and apply these ideas to our business's challenges. Here’s an exercise you can do when you’re thinking about your future product or service. The next time you’re looking at that business process, at the new initiative you’re trying to define requirements for, think about those great ideas you recognise in other industries, in the products and mobile apps you use everyday. Think about the last great customer service experience you had; what was great about it, and why? The app you use every day; what value does it offer that makes you want to keep coming back? What is the fundamental problem it solves?
Ask the question, make the leap. If you applied that idea, that type of solution, selecting the aspects of the idea that will work best for your business, taking inspiration from your favourite retailer, from your bank, from your exercise app, from your news aggregator app to your service centre problem, from a consumer community to a company community to your customer engagement model, to your manufacturing process, your customer service approach to your customer app strategy ... does it create something new?
You might just surprise yourself (and your competitors!) when it does. Perhaps now is the time to start flexing your disruptive innovation muscle.