Innovate the Ordinary - Why You Don’t Need Big Budget R&D to be Innovative
18th March 2010
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What first comes to mind when the word “innovation” is used?

For many its the likes of Google, Apple, 3M, RIM, Starbucks, IBM, Dell, iNTEL, eBay and more recently Bloom. The list goes on but frequently with that list of innovation worthies come two perceptions about innovation:

  • Innovation is an expensive, big business sport about new products, huge R&D budgets and multi million dollar profits.
  • Innovation is about the special and not the mundane and implicitly it is not for ordinary businesses.

That is a shame because innovation is simply about bringing some novel and useful idea to reality. Of course, an innovation needs to generate some advantage, otherwise, why bother?

From that perspective innovation is something your “ordinary” business can do and you can use it on anything, including the seemingly mundane. More than that it can make a difference to how your business operates as well as what your business offers. It can have a big impact on the bottom line. Here are two examples I came across in the last week.

Innovating The Refrigeration Experience

We were just forced to buy a new refrigerator, the old one having died after a chronic illness lasting six weeks as we nursed it through the doubt.  I’m sure that you know the “White Appliance Doubt” syndrome:

  • Is it fixable?
  • Do we waste a large portion of the price of a new unit by calling out an engineer who cannot fix it.
  • Do we waste lots of money buying a new one when an engineer could have fixed it and cost only a fraction of price?

You must have been there?

We went thorugh the syndrome and called in the repairman. It looked promising for a while but eventually the big white box died. We then bought on-line. This is a challenge in trust all on its own so we chose a respected high street retailer who is better known for the “brick” than the “click”. Great service, we had the new appliance in and working within around 36 hours. But achieving that was not the innovation.

Next came the attempt to sell the extended warranty/service plan. We almost never buy these because acting as our own insurer, even if one or two pieces of kit need replacing, we have still made a profit compared to buying these plans for everything. They give us virtually no benefit.

Now the innovation. I have never seen this before.

Not only did the plan cover parts and labour, BUT when they can’t fix it anymore  they will simply replace it.  New for old, like for like or nearest model. If that is not good enough the monthly premium was calculated over 7 years to  be the equivalent to today’s purchase price, the one I’d just paid. The average life expectancy of a refrigerator, so said the the repairman and the supplier, is between the 5 and 7 years.  So unless this new appliance defies the odds and lives on to a ripe old age, I win hands down.  Its a win-win. They get my money and custom while we get a new fridge in five years at today’s prices! PLUS no more “White Appliance Doubt” syndrome. That’s what you call advantage. What reason have I got for not buying?

There is innovation at work on the ordinary, the mundane and not an R&D programme insight.

Innovating Employee Communications

Here is another example I read about a couple of days ago on a Blogging Innovation Post written by Robert Tucker.

Electronics retailer Best Buy has around 160,000 employees in a shade under 1200 stores in the US, China, Mexico, England and some other countries. They developed a mechanism for listening to their employees and as result, over four years saw staff churn fall from 80% to 49%.  They also avoided a staff relations disaster.

Now that is advantage! How did they do it?

One creative executive,  Jennifer Rock, noted that the stores with the best numbers had the highest level of staff engagement. She then set about using every low cost means available to communicate with their employees. Why?  because she recognised that this is a two-way street and the staff-voice needed to be heard. Staff communications; that’s a pretty mundane and every day topic.

Jennifer set up Internet based mechanisms to establish a worldwide dialogue between management and staff. Facilitating this dialogue is the innovation. Most employee communication is one way, that is why it described with words like “cascade”. Its top to bottom with little, if any feedback travelling back up the organisation.

One Internet mechanism that was set up is an on-line staff forum. This enabled the employee concerns to be visible to the Execs that ran the business. It helped them avoid an horrendous mistake regarding a change to staff discount policy that would have destroyed staff morale and job satisfaction, reversing the reduction in staff churn. It would have also prevented staff from buying new products themselves and acting as first-hand recommenders to their customers. The result would have been low staff morale and commitment plus reduced product knowledge. The inevitable result: poor customer service and fewer sales; the start of the slippery slide.

Take a look at the Blogging Innovation Post for the full story, its worth a read.

The point: Novelty and innovation was applied to an ordinary, mundane, every day process, a “Cinderella” if you like. The result was an enormous advantage for the business in improved staff engagement and the ensuing  benefits. More than that, it meant that the kind of mistake that kills businesses was avoided.

Innovation for the Ordinary Business

These two examples show that:

  • Creativity, novelty and innovation can be applied to ordinary things in ordinary businesses. When that happens significant advantages can be gained, the kind that make a huge difference to the business.
  • Big budget R&D is not necessary and in fact, both business in the example have innovated by using pretty ordinary and mundane mechanisms. What they did however is novel, it was implemented and it generated an advantage. That is as good a definition of “INNOVATION” as you will get.
  • The key is the creativity of the people who saw the need and came up with the solution.

Innovation is something that is available to any business, event the smallest, even the most everyday. It starts with identifying the need and then letting creative thinking loose to identify the novel and useful solution. It only has to be novel for your situation, then its a matter of putting that solution in place.

What Can You Do Today?

Take a moment and look at your business. Where would you like to see improvement? Then squeeze those creative juices and see what you come up with.

If you need some help then the  The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to Brainstorming and  “Do What You’ve Always Done”  an introduction to creative thinking can get you started.

Where have you seen innovation applied to ordinary things? Leave a comment.

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