As a 30-plus-year veteran in the field of marketing and a forever student, it never ceases to amaze me how simple solutions are often right in front of our noses. Yogi Berra is credited with saying, “You can see a lot just by observing.” Observation is often the first step in creativity and innovation.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen examples of truly breakthrough innovation and out-of-the-box thinking and a large number of highly successful incremental transformations. A 2018 report by Innovation Leader and KPMG indicated that 49% of those surveyed focus their innovation efforts on incremental innovation (improving an existing product or service), 28% focus on adjacent innovation (expanding existing products into new markets) and 23% focus on transformational innovation (entirely new products, services or business models).
One question I hear quite often from clients, colleagues and friends is: “Where does breakthrough innovation come from?” As I suggested at the start of this article, I’m a firm believer that more time spent observing could lead to the next big innovation. Here are a couple of examples of breakthroughs based on observations that come to mind:
In the mid-1600s Isaac Newton was purportedly resting beneath an apple tree when an apple fell from a branch and struck him on the top of the head, compelling him to consider why apples always fall downward. Whether or not Newton was actually sitting under an apple tree and hit on the head is unknown, but his observation of how apples fall led him to develop his law of universal gravitation.
One day in 1941, Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, went for a walk in the woods and observed that burrs were sticking to his clothing. His observation led him to wonder whether the burrs could be made into something useful. He researched his idea to create synthetic burrs for nearly eight years before he succeeded. He called his invention Velcro and patented it in 1955.
So if creativity can be inspired by observing the environment and the situations we experience day in and day out, the possibilities are limitless. Creativity is neither perfectly timed nor predictable. It can come at any moment in virtually any form. Having an open mind, as in the cases of de Mestral asking, “What if?” and Newton questioning what he observed, can lead to tremendous outcomes. Marketers, product developers, salespeople and CEOs often observe something without making a connection to how it may relate to their product or service. Give yourself permission to dream, imagine and create.
The challenge for most is not the lack of new ideas but rather their applicability and purposefulness. Too many creative solutions are hatched simply for creativity’s sake. These are often destined to fail or, at a minimum, fall far short of their intended goals.
Effective creativity usually begins by observing the current situation and paying close attention to how problems and challenges are being solved and, in the case of product innovation, which existing systems, products or natural occurrences can be applied to a new challenge (e.g., Velcro). Organizations dedicated to challenging the status quo and continually seeking creative solutions are often the winners in today’s fast-paced market.
It’s not unusual for companies to dedicate internal teams to continually challenge the organization to look at things differently and keep improving a product (I would characterize this as iterative innovation). Constantly evaluating whether the current product still meets market demands and considering whether it needs modification, enhancement, repositioning or reinvention are usually vital elements to remaining relevant with customers. It’s also important to recognize that the rate of change in today’s marketplace dictates that innovation is an ongoing process rather than a one-and-done exercise.
Breakthrough innovation often happens when an “aha” moment occurs and an organization has a visionary leader and a curious team willing to never stop looking around for such a revelation. Consumers’ loyalty to companies and brands, particularly to big brands, has waned in recent years, and social media has created an environment that causes negative news to travel quickly. Game-changing inventions can certainly help organizations and products rise above the noise and attract attention, build market share and drive results.
For any organization looking to advance their business or their product’s success, I believe continual innovation should be at the center. Past clients would probably share that I’ve been known to send them away to do more discovery before embarking on a product launch. Remember that creativity begins with observation.