Wild & Wacky Wins the Innovation Race

I just got back from the Society of Human Resource Managers (“SHRM”) conference in Las Vegas where I gave a talk on “You’ve Cut Costs. You’ve Downsized. Now What?” focusing on the creative thinking process, of course. Before the session, I had a discussion with one of the attendees from a professional services firm who mentioned that his company had cut their budgets so severely that they felt hamstrung. To try and remain competitive, he said, meant that everyone had a responsibility to look for ways to make continued incremental improvements.
“Do you think your competitors are doing the same thing?” I asked.
“Oh, absolutely.” He said. “They wouldn’t survive in this business climate, if they weren’t.”
Probing more, I asked: “How are you differentiating yourselves from your competitors if they, too, are making incremental improvements?”
“Well, you just hope that you’re doing it faster than they are!” he smiled back.
Point made. We all want to get early mover advantages, but the problem is that innovation that occurs from incremental improvements is mostly foreseeable, and therefore, doesn’t give much of a window of opportunity to capitalize on early moves. Granted, continued improvement is necessary, but it must be coupled with a different approach.
Think of creativity on a spectrum. On one end is the incremental approach with continued efforts at improving what is. Over time, those quantitative improvements become qualitative.
A better approach is to start at the other end of the spectrum with the wild and wacky ideas. With practice these ideas can be massaged and worked into practical ideas that are not so easily foreseen. Here’s an example: When DuPont was looking for ways to boost their sales in their Lycra® fabric, they began one of their brainstorming sessions by saying that “Lycra® is made for nonpersons” – just the opposite of what they were doing. They considered that wild and wacky. But that led to their making Lycra® clothing for dolls and racehorses for their warm-up sessions.
“You die before you die” was another wacky statement uttered by someone at Prudential when they were looking for ways to increase the sales at their life insurance division. That led to the concept of “Living Benefits” where if you have medical costs from a terminal illness, you can get a partial payout from your insurance to pay for those costs before you die. That was a game changing innovation.
All you have to do is use the wild and wacky idea as a stepping stone. Don’t judge it. Try to take something positive from it. And you will open up new possibilities of thinking. It won’t work every time, but it will work more often as you develop this skill. And when it does work, it will likely give you a huge leap against your competition.

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