Can we innovate our way to growth?
Yes, but it is no longer business as usual.
Whether it’s a faster way to move data, a cheaper way to power a car or a more creative way to sell your products, the right innovation can deliver huge profits to an organization. But given today’s fast-paced global marketplace and limited resources for research and development, companies often struggle simply to survive, let alone innovate.
Innovation is driven by consumer demands for cheaper, faster and easier ways to make life better. Knowingly, or unknowingly, consumers tell the marketplace what they like. Every time a consumer leaves a website with an online shopping cart full of “unpurchased” merchandise, they tell the merchant you are too expensive, I just don’t like your product or I don’t understand what I am buying so I won’t buy it.
Innovators thrive on seeing problems and finding solutions.
An “innovation network” is a web of people, institutions or companies that seeks and offers information to solve consumer problems and objections and come up with new ideas. This web of connections and exposure to real-life obstacles are becoming increasingly important, especially when diversity is often the key to enabling an effective innovation network. Diversity of thought is about enabling people to think outside the box and taking unbiased ideas from a broad audience. In this economy, people (and organizations) have a phenomenal opportunity to think differently about the innovation process.
For example, 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, as many as 80,000 barrels of oil remain on the floor of Prince William Sound because the oil has been frozen by sub-arctic temperatures, making it difficult to pump to the surface. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute, established by Congress after the spill, ran a $20,000 challenge with InnoCentive in 2007 to try to solve the dilemma, which had perpetually stumped the world’s oil experts. After three months, a construction engineer from the Midwest came up with the winning answer. He surmised that vibrating the oil could keep it in a semi-fluid state, in the same way cement is kept flowing while it is poured into a form. Modify the drilling equipment, vibrate the oil and you’ll be able to pump it, he suggested. It worked. Problem solved.
It was reported that academics, who polled InnoCentive’s winning solvers, discovered something “both startling and intuitively obvious.” They found that the background person who solved the problem was not in the slightest an expert in this field. When you’re ready to move the problem to the outside world, what you really need is some fresh thinking. Organizations today are not typically designed to think this way and are often their own worst enemy. That’s why a network of innovation is such a powerful idea.
Harnessing the power of innovation requires not just knowledgeable management but a clear vision — and sometimes a shift in company culture. For example, a very large company might develop a program to identify key network players and map their importance to the company. In small groups, their project teams could brainstorm about their immediate network by dividing it into broad categories that might include: customers, competitors, influencers, scientific development players and suppliers. These categories could then be subdivided, analyzed and drawn into maps where a clear picture of the company’s network could emerge and an action plan for leveraging that it could be formed. This takes time and may contain a tremendous amount of bias and constraints. In a small business where the managers are far fewer, the ability to have out-of-the-box thinking can be easier to produce. However, the drawback is that with fewer people the combined expertise may conversely be far less. It can be a trade off.
Obviously, the question that is begging to be answered is how does a company (large or small) develop real innovation and monetize it? In my opinion, the answer lies in the managers. Even in large companies, true innovation can and does occur, but it is usually developed by an individual in a smaller division or segment of the company. Smaller companies are forced to innovate to survive.
For example, I am a partner in VizKinect, which is a local Reno startup. Several years ago, we read where GM pulled out of advertising in the Super Bowl. We wanted to find out why as it was not intuitive to us. As we researched that announcement, we discovered that GM stated it could not justify the expense of the multi-million dollar ad and had no way to determine if the ad was effective or if anyone even saw their products.
We understood this age-old dilemma on how to value the marketing and advertising expense, which is certainly not unique to GM. But why pull out of the biggest audience event of the year. It appears that even though there was data to support ad visibility, very few (or far less than expected) actually saw and recalled the products. So a problem arose: lots of money spent, insufficient audience recollection and no good way to validate viewer engagement. After reaching out to a network of 25 entrepreneurs and innovators, VizKinect was born to research this problem and market, construct a viable solution and assemble a team to build a solution. Through technical innovation, we developed a set of software tools that effectively connects left brain science and analytics to right brain creativity to provide data sets and insights so companies can produce smarter videos, commercials, TV shows and movies. With our patented biometric technology, we track and measure viewers’ reactions to various types of media to discover what draws people’s attention and, almost more importantly, what messages and visuals are left unnoticed. Combining these analytics with state-of-the-art production equipment, videographers can use unbiased information to adjust, crop and create smarter advertising.
VizKinect is one example and this problem-solving process happens every day of every year as companies spring up with innovations to meet the challenges of solving problems. Innovation is a cornerstone of growth in northern Nevada and driven by consumer demand, which is solved by creative thinking.
Ky Good is the co-founder and director at the Center for Unique Business Enterprises. He can be reached at Ky@cubeatmidtown.com.