Before the patent and trademark attorneys get up in arms, let me explain. There are a rare few on this planet who come up with completely revolutionary ideas. Albert Einstein comes to mind. For folks who study the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ), you’ll know that only 1% of the inventions studied—they looked at more than 200,000 patent filings--fit this category and were classified as Pioneering Inventions. Another 4% were considered an invention outside a paradigm. The rest, well, they were great ideas, but not necessarily revolutionary or “inventive.” They were, instead, smart people, employing inventive ideas that other people had come up with. But these smart people combined those great ideas and applied them in new ways. Innovation through Combination.
The Foundation of Sustainable Innovation
You can brute force innovation without inspiration for a while. Smart people and businesses have shown that time and again. If there is a problem to solve, people will find ways to do it. But when you look at individuals or businesses that are continually innovating and creating competitive advantage, what’s the common thread? The answer, for me, is a simple one. Connection with Purpose. Said another way, connection with your Why, your reason for doing what you do. With that, creativity, innovation and the energy to put in the hard work to create it are natural outcomes. If you find yourself trying to innovate and don’t feel passionate about why you’re doing it, the odds are that innovation will be a lot harder to come by and you certainly will struggle to sustain it for the long-term.
If You’ve Found Your Why, There are Roadmaps, Processes, to Innovation
TRIZ tells us that there are 40 inventive solutions which have repeated themselves time and again and serve as the foundation for problem solving. After looking at more than 250 businesses, St Gallens Business School has gone so far as to define 55 identifiable business model patterns that can help define nearly every business we see today. Some might see this as depressing. It limits our ego-driven need to be an inventor. For me, I find it refreshing. There is a roadmap for catalyzing our thinking and ideas and tools to help us get there. The process is Combination Innovation.
The Way Out, Why-Powered Combination Innovation
For those looking for solutions, they’re there if you’re committed to finding them AND you connect them to your WHY--infusing the process with the required passion to make it happen. I’ve been blown away by what Why-focused Executive teams can accomplish in a short period of time with some well-prepared external stimuli. The process, Combination Innovation, is simple. Introduce external stimuli such as business model patterns, solutions sets used to solve other challenges in other industries, emerging trends, data and ideas to imitate--to recombine. Focus on how to apply that stimuli to your business. Run them through a defined set of vetting criteria. For the winners, determine how they fit into your business model, including your Why. Repeat. Great ideas emerge and often the "solution," the innovation, is a combination of those ideas put together. For those really looking for truly out-of-the-box, introduce new voices in the room to guide the process and offer fresh perspective.
Innovation Is For Everyone and It Creates Competitive Advantage
Innovation isn't just for rocket scientists. Nor is it something to be ignored. It is for anyone, 1) willing to reconnect with their Why and 2) willing to open their mind to looking at and combining things in new ways. Be bold. Be daring. Imitate to Innovate and create competitive advantage!
Innovation Can Come From the Bottom Up
Those words, spoken at the Bottom of the Pyramid World Summit have stayed with me. In the context of the BoP World Summit, it was a reminder that the minds at the margin, the "poor," should be involved in the solutions designed for them. If listened to, Minds at the Margin can be the source of innovation sought by those seeking to solve problems. While the phrase emanated from a summit dedicated to finding inclusive solutions and innovations for solving poverty, let there be no doubt it has application in the affluent world and our jobs.
Bottom-Up Innovation Applies in Nearly Every Circumstance
As I reflect on my work over the past 18 years running companies and consulting with big, small, for-profit and not for-profit enterprises, a common thread emerges. The answers to the challenges we face and the innovation we seek often lie where we least expect them: in the minds of those at the margins. Unhappy customers. Employees who haven't been put in a position to succeed. People who have been marginalized by traditional top-down leadership.
Great Leaders Create Cultures for Innovation to Bubble Up
In my experience, great leaders and innovators don't seek to provide all the answers. They seek out the voice of those at the margins, create a culture for them to be heard and build systems for those ideas to be woven into tapestries that are richer, more vibrant and more resilient than any one individual could create on their own. As they do that, they create a Combination Innovation culture capable of overcoming the challenges they face and catalyzing their teams to achieve their Why, their mission.
A Simple first Step for You
Weighty stuff? Perhaps. But it really is as simple as a shift in mindset. A shift to seeing the Minds at the Margin as a source of solutions and innovation, not the cause of challenges that require them. It starts with one simple step, asking what they think. For those of you in leadership positions I offer you a simple challenge. The next time you've got a problem to solve, a job to be done, start by listening to those at margins and see what emerges. It may just be the start of the solution you seek. Innovation from the Bottom Up isn't just a catch phrase for a conference (the BoP World Summit), it's a mindset shift that can help solve problems in any circumstance.
The difference between timeless and priceless. Building a business that will stand the test of time.
As an Advisor/Mentor to early stage start-ups and incubators, I have the privilege of seeing some pretty cool things and some amazing ideas. I was asked recently, is there one thing that leads you to believe one company will be more successful than others over the long term (Timeless versus Priceless)? I’ve often had trouble articulating what that is and how I determined it. But, after reading Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, I’m now able to articulate what’s been simmering in my gut.
Priceless Can Be Copied
Many products are priceless. They’re cool. They solve a problem. They’re better than their predecessors. The thing is, if they are those things, make their mark and make money, they’ll be copied. The people doing the copying may just have more money and be better resourced. Competition can be hard and is not for the faint of heart. How will the company adapt? If its priceless product doesn’t take off, will it continue on or “call it a day?” So what takes a company from being priceless, a 1-hit wonder, to being timeless—able to sustain for the long haul?
The One Thing to Go From Priceless to Timeless
Timeless organizations have a mission and vision that makes them wake up with passion and verve. They have a cause, a purpose that is far greater than any one product or idea that they’ve developed. Sometimes, as Simon points out, it is simply to do something like challenging the status quo (Apple). For others, it’s a solution to a problem they have in their lives that can make other’s lives better—always one of the best sources of inspiration! For the rare few, it’s a truly altruistic desire to serve their communities and the planet. But for all of them, they can tell you why they're doing what they’re doing and it’s about more than just making a buck or creating something cool.
It Creates Competitive Advantage
It is passion, the Why, Purpose, the underlying reason for being, that keeps them going during the inevitable challenges that come with starting a business. It allows them to pivot and see things differently when they need to, because what they offer is far less important than what cause they’re looking to champion. It is this constant striving, based on purpose/cause/mission, that I believe separates the timeless from the priceless. Both are needed and both can catalyze tremendous change in our world. Some will just see their impact last longer than others.
An All Too Common Situation That Stops Innovation and Problem Solving
On a client project, I walked in to my key contacts office. As I completed the introductory download, I was regaled with stories of an employee who just didn’t get it and was likely “on his way out.”
Several days later, I sat down with the employee, described the problem to be solved, asked questions and listened. What I heard made sense. What I heard was a solution to one of the opportunities for improvement that was needed. I tried hard not to hear it. I tried hard not to believe it. This employee, after all, was one of the “root causes,” of the current challenge. Yet his ideas stuck with me. After working with the employee to verify his comments and his solutions, I still couldn’t find a reason not to pursue them. In fact, they needed to be pursued.
Several days later, with my key contact, I laid out the action plan. I included the ideas offered as part of the solution. They were embraced. Later, when I described how I came up the solutions, I revealed the source and the methodology (offering a voice to the employee). The look of surprise was as stunning as the solution offered by the employee.We all have history with people and ideas.
Stories We Tell Ourselves Could Hold Us Back
We all have “stories we tell ourselves.” These create biases in our thinking. The question we need to ask ourselves is does our world view accurately reflect the here and now? Or, is what we see being influenced by something else? Be careful what you see. It may be the thing holding you back from the breakthrough you’re looking for.
The voice and stories from this blog originate from the collective wisdom and experiences not just of our team, but with those we were fortunate to learn from.