No Product Lives Alone

I started a project for a new client yesterday.  As I went out to do the first pilot interview, I was really asking myself, how can I get anybody to talk about a product such as this?  I’ve researched dozens and dozens of different products in the field.  It’s easy to get opinions  and watch somebody use something like a lawnmower, or a blender.  There’s a set process around a product like that, so its easy to get a consumer to engage the product and let me learn from observation and interview.  But what do you do when you want to innovate a low interaction type of product like a doorknob?  Just for the record, this new client does not make doorknobs, but it seemed an apt analogy.

First of all, I have to commend a door knob manufacturer for even caring about innovation.  Often times, they’ve resigned themselves to only follow fashion trends for any type of variation.  In the world of knobs, you’ve got shape and finish, and you know that you must follow other elements of hardware that exist in consumers’ homes.  The result is a follower strategy, staying in business by keeping up with other companies that closely follow trends.

But how do you innovate such a product and break out of the follower strategy?  You have to realize that while a doorknob is a low interaction, low interest product in and of itself, it is a member of a larger “ecosystem” from a consumer standpoint.   A doorknob has fundamental purposes (e.g. allowing you to open a door on demand while preventing the door from opening on its own, allows you to pull a door open, etc).  Zoom out a bit and your begin to see that it also resides in the realm of security, access, decor, environmental control, safety, etc.  When you think in these terms, you can identify other products that also exist in the same ecosystem.  Once identified, ways to combine or connect seemingly unrelated products come to mind.  And that’s where innovation begins.

You may work for a company that makes “doorknobs”.  As such you may believe that there’s no real opportunity for change in your category.  If that’s the case, zoom out, look at the bigger picture, see what other products are in the same ecosystem and start your thinking there.  You’ll be amazed at the opportunities that surface.

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Changing Perspectives…

We had a neat experience as a company last week.  Deciding it was time to focus a bit “on the business”, we scheduled a day-long retreat.  Now, adjoining our office is a fabulous space, Suite D that is often rented out by other companies that are having strategic meetings.  So my first inclination was that we could hold our meeting there.  After all, it has huge white boards, high-def television for presentations, comfortable deep seating, etc.  “NO!” was the resounding reply from the staff…  “We need to take our own medicine.  We always tell our clients to get out of their office and their comfort zone, we cannot have a meaningful retreat if we don’t get away”.

When I’ve done this sort of thing in the past, I’ve rented expensive spaces in nice locations.  But I didn’t feel like investing this time (probably still a little sore that we weren’t using our own space that I spent so much to furnish and decorate).  So I came up with a new plan.  We had our first ever roving retreat.  We started out at a local coffee shop where we spent a couple of hours mapping out where we are and what our most pressing challenges entail.  We latched on to one issue and drove it to a very satisfying solution.  But once we had that, we found ourselves stalling out a bit.  So instead of sitting and staring at each other, we packed up and moved to a new location.  The second place we went to was a picnic shelter in a local park.  The weather was fabulous, there was a light breeze and the sound of kids playing in the nearby playground was energizing.  At this place we took on a new topic.  We worked it through to completion and packed up again.  After lunch we visited another park and ended up at a local microbrewery.

Four key topics covered, four locations experienced.  I’d never done this before, but I’ll certainly do it again.  It was amazing how a new location changed the way we looked at things and the ideas that we generated.  I contrast that with the number of times we have had our internal meetings only to find ourselves starting at each other in silence.  The change in venue provided a change in perspective.  And that made for a highly effective day!

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Control vs. Creativity

ImageWe had an interesting discussion in the office the other day.  We were talking about creative people that each of us know, and some of the life-style choices that they make.  As is often the case around here, the conversation quickly turned to restaurants and food.  It turns out that we all know of people (or families for that matter) that have three or four restaurants that they will always choose if they are looking to dine out.  Conversely, we all know people that if given a choice would eat at a different restaurant every time if they could.  In our minds, we could all make a clear connection between our perception of a person’s level of creativity and their desire to experience something new.

The question arose, “Do creative people always seek out new experiences, or do people become more creative as they experience new things?”.  Seems like the classic “chicken or the egg” question, but is it really?  Is this really about the need many people have to be in complete control (or at least to have the illusion of being in complete control) of their lives?  Fundamentally speaking, can you be both a control-freak and a highly creative person, or are these in conflict with one another?

I fall into the camp of “these things are opposites”.  I can’t possibly get to a new place if I’m only going to consider going down a tried and true path.  Creativity demands that I be flexible and allow the outcome to evolve as I learn.  I must be open to new stimuli and willing to incorporate it into my life on a continuous basis.  While I can (and should) set goals and objectives for myself, these need to be directional in nature and not constraining.

I think everyone knows this at some level, but many are in denial.  There are a lot of pseudo-creatives out there that try to do different things to show how open they are to new experiences.  But look closely and you’ll see the truth.  One of the families that I referred to earlier orders fish and chips when they go out to eat.  They will order these from one of three different local restaurants when they dine out.  Upon returning from a recent vacation, they were talking about a great new place they ate, how local it felt and how well it represented the area they were visiting.  But when asked what they’d ordered… you guessed it; fish and chips!

So in answer to my chicken and egg question…  Do creative people seek out new experiences?  YES.  Are people more creative because they are exposed to new experiences? ALSO YES.  The lesson here is that we can all become more creative by the choices we make. While control and routine may provide us with comfort, they may hold us back if we are trying to grow and expand our ways of thinking.

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Overcoming Confirmation Bias

I’ve been in a couple of different meetings lately where I’ve been surprised at people’s reactions to new findings.  In both cases the results of a study were shared with a diverse group of people.   While I found the information shared to be highly insightful and illuminating, others in the group heard the same information and replied “there’s nothing new here… it’s exactly what I expected to see”.  The result?  I’m ready to go change everything, and others in the room are feeling confirmed that everything is okay exactly as is.  How can different people see the exact same results and come to such different conclusions?

There’s a psychological term called Confirmation Bias.   Simply stated “there  is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses”.  In the case of the above meetings, I (naturally looking to change things up) focus on the information that demonstrates dissatisfaction or problems.  The people in the meeting that are fine with the status quo focus on the comments that are more positive and  dismiss the negative comments as irrelevant.

I know there is a world of Brain Science research out there that explains this in great detail.  In a nutshell, our brains save countless time by looking for patterns and putting new found information into existing “buckets”.  Therefore, it is physically easier to apply new learning to an existing belief than to open up new storage areas for unique thoughts.  (I apologize to all of my neuro-science friends for this gross oversimplification)

So what can we do about it?  Awareness is the key.  Don’t limit your understanding to the first glance of new findings.  Knowing your brain is filtering this information can allow you to look a second time and attempt to see the information as it truly is.  Listening (with an open mind) to others’ opinions on the same data can also benefit you.  

This is no different than physical exercise.  It’s hard at first and it makes you very fatigued.  But before long it becomes a habit and your body comes to appreciate it.

Watch for this in your next meeting.  Once you are aware of it, you’ll see it everywhere.  If you can learn to see past your own natural bias, you will be able to add value that is appreciated by everyone in your organization.

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Get out of your cocoon

I recently wrote a blog for a group in Indianapolis called Centric.  It’s a group focused on innovation and draws people from a diverse set of organizations.  Service providers, not-for-profit reps, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and corporate personnel all meet once a month to listen to a speaker and share lunch.     It has gotten a lot of play, so I wanted to repurpose it here.
I spent the first half of my career at Whirlpool Corporation with all of the blessings and trappings that come with working at a huge company.  From a personal development standpoint, they provided everything I needed.  I would attend four or five company held training workshops every year ranging in topics from Brand Marketing to Leading Effective Teams.  I even took a full year of Italian Language Classes right at the corporate headquarters.  Every month we had a Management Club meeting, where a distinguished author or an internal executive would speak.  Every couple of years, I might break out to attend a national conference, but that was typically only when I was speaking.  I lived in a giant cocoon with all the life-sustaining nutrients I could ever need.  I honestly believed that whatever I could need to know, they would provide for me.
The second half of my career (so far), I’ve been a small business owner.  Without having the company provided resources that I was used to, I found that I had to get out and meet people and find alternative means of expanding my influence.  Networking (a concept it turns out that extends beyond meeting people down the hall) became a necessity to get my business up and going.  Now my business is established and I keep busy… But I still seek out opportunities to network and meet with thought leaders beyond my four walls.  Not so much for business sustainability, but more for personal enrichment (which by the way, leads to business growth).  Centric is a tremendous organization that serves this purpose.  Such a wealth of diversity exists at every meeting, I never come away without new learning.
What I wish I’d known then what I know now… Can a big-business person learn from a small service provider?  Yes!  In fact, they pay them for professional services on a regular basis.  But what about the invaluable, top of mind stuff?  What about the life experiences that get shared only over a shared meal?  You don’t get that in a typical consulting engagement.  Looking back, I wish I had had a Centric-type organization available to me during my corporate years.    Instead of just hearing what all of my colleagues were hearing, I could have gained unique perspectives and brought them back to my job. It would have given me an edge that others didn’t have.  Today, I firmly believe that the information shared readily at a Centric meeting could make the average corporate employee a  superstar within their own company.
Today, I find that most “corporate-types” continue to think like I once did.  “Networking is for realtors, financial planners and small business owners, it’s not something I need in my life.  My company teaches me everything I need to know…”.  Yeah, keep drinking that Kool-Aid.
Kudos to the big company folks that have tried out Centric and have made it a home.  I’m sure it has benefited you in your careers.  But be careful… If word gets out, it might just catch on with other corporate employees.
You may not be near Indianapolis, so attending a Centric event might not be an option for you.  But have you checked to see what might be available in your area?  When is the last time you had coffee with someone to share thoughts and ideas outside of your own company?  No one organization has a lock on innovation.  The wider you cast your net, the more likely you are to catch a great idea!

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Innovation is like exercise

I hate running.  I wish I didn’t but I do.  I try to run a couple of miles 2-3 mornings/week, but I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed it.  Saturday morning I woke up knowing that I should go for a run.  As I laid there thinking about it, everything in my body said “Don’t do it”.  I suddenly became aware of every minor ache / pain.  I thought about the work I had to do later that day and the physical resources that would require.  Surely running would exhaust that valuable energy and keep me from completion later in the day.  Finally I considered my time constraints.  With the holidays on top of us, I didn’t have the time to first go for a run, then cool down then shower and change.  After all, I had a jam packed morning scheduled.  Then, as I do most Saturdays, I put on my shoes and went for a run.  Sure I hated it, but it feels so good when it’s over and I know I’ve done something proactive and good for me in the long run.

It seems to me that this is how many organizations view innovation.  They love to talk about it and plan for it in the future.  But just like me, the inertia of not doing it is very tough to overcome.  Insufficient resources, lack of time, too many “pains” in the present to focus on the future.  Yep.  That’s all true.  But if you want to be around for the long haul, it’s time to lace up your shoes and start innovating.  Once you start, it may even become a habit!Image


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Is B2B a Myth?

I was talking with a guy the other day whose company makes commonly-used, consumer products.  I asked him how he goes about gaining insight and understanding about his consumers.  He looked at me with a somewhat puzzled expression and informed me that my question was really irrelevant, as he was a Business to Business (B2B) company, not a Business to Consumer (B2C) firm.  After all, he stated, all of his attention and focus was on the retail buyer at the big box stores, not on the Average Joe that shopped there.  I honestly waited to see if he was being sarcastic, or would crack a smile or something, but he did not.  This was his philosophy and he was sticking with it.

While this logic seems obviously flawed, I began thinking further about this.  What business actually buys anything?  Companies don’t buy things, people do.  Granted, they may work for companies, but ultimately it’s a person that is making the decision whether or not to purchase a product or a service.  Isn’t that person ultimately a consumer?  They make their choice based upon their personal experiences, opinions and biases.  It may not be in a retail setting, but just like Average Joe, they are considering their budget, their options, and their personal preferences as they make their decision.

So my question remains… Is there really such a thing as a business to business sale?  Or aren’t we all actually selling to consumers at some level?

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