By Sean McDowell
Vice President Design and Development
Every company wants to be more innovative. But what’s the best way to do that? Here is a list of top 10 tips to help your company be more innovative.
1. Find a North Star
Being innovative is not easy. It can take years, often it is a turbulent road and it’s easy to get pulled off course. If you have a strong vision of where you are going – or a North Star to point your compass – it’s easier to keep the entire team on course. It helps the team make decisions each day. Eventually all of the small decisions add up to have a bigger impact.
Best example: Google’s mission to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Their north star is inspirational, aspirational and will remain in place forever. Is your company’s mission that clear? Do you have a crystal clear target of your next product offering? Can everyone on the team recite it back to you?
2. Listen to the Voice of the Consumer
The best way to innovate is to be a strong observer. Open your radar and look for consumer pain points. Wherever there is a pain point there is an opportunity to innovate. The best way to do this is to get in the trenches and observing first hand. If you are designing a tent – go camping. Focus groups can be important sources of information, but nothing beats first hand experience.
Best example: Netflix has invented and reinvented itself multiple times. They started as a CD subscription service and put Blockbuster out of business. Today, they are the largest streaming service. They have done this by listening closely to consumers and providing content that is exactly where and when they need it. They are providing incredible niche solutions for their consumers.
3. Find Your Niche
Don’t try to boil the ocean. It’s very difficult to be all things to all people. Even Amazon started out as an on-line bookstore before growing their current empire. Nike started building running shoes before expanding to other sports. Apple makes 5 really incredible products, when they could make so many more. Focus helps them stay sharp and deliver world class products.
Best example: Marvel Studios has become the worlds largest and most successful movie studio. This comes from their amazing ability to tell stories. They took 50 years of history of crafting narratives on the page to a new more consumable medium – movies. Knowing who you are and what makes you great – but also not being afraid to shift and the world changes.
4. Create a Culture of Innovation
Building diverse and multi-disciplinary teams is the best way to cultivate new ideas. The worst way is to have the same people sit in a room and agree with one another. Lincoln is famous for creating a team of rivals to explore all sides of an issue. Diverse experiences and global mindsets create the best ideas and translate to a more relevant brand. Remember that being innovative is a skill. It is something that can be learned.
Best example: Nintendo has been reinventing itself since 1889. It started as a playing card company – shifted to video games in the 1970’s – invented the arcade game Donkey Kong in the ‘80’s – envisioned the portable Game Boy in the 90’s – turned the industry on it’s head by creating the family friendly and interactive Wii. Many companies hold on too long to each market segment, by having a culture of innovation, Nintendo was able to re-invent itself over and over again for the past 128 years.
5. Build | Test | Repeat
Innovation is like a game of golf. Very rarely do you ever get a hole in one. You need to build a hypothesis, test it, build prototypes, test it and then get consumer feedback. You keep repeating the process until you have something that consumers crave. One warning – don’t get stuck in perpetual development. If consumers like your beta test you can get it into the market and start making money.
Best example: Facebook and many other digital based companies are using A-B testing to determine the best route forward. It helps remove bias and keeps the team moving forward quickly. Thomas Edison was known for being an expert in this respect. His Melo Park team identified big topics like electricity. They build thousands of prototypes before the light bulb actually worked.
6. Biz and Buzz Strategy
You can only be innovative if you are given the time and space to be creative, do the hard work and invest in research. The best way to do that is to create two separate teams. One to cover the day to day business and pay the bills (Biz). The second team will then be able to build, test and repeat new ideas (Buzz). If you make the mistake of having the same team do both roles they will fail … miserably.
Best example: Nike makes some of the most stunning and innovative products the world has ever seen. Products like the AlphaFly create a lot of buzz and PR for the company. Nike also visually ties those revolutionary products to their more main stream products like the Pegasus. The AlphaFly creates the energy and the Pegasus makes the money. Nike talks a lot about their existing new ideas, but it’s important to remember that they sell tons of accessible products as well.
7. Invest in Innovation
It’s easy when the quarterly report comes in to focus resources towards helping the margins and the bottom line. Don’t fall into this trap. Set aside 10% of your revenue to invest in innovation: new ideas, new materials, new manufacturing processes, and new digital platforms. It’s the best investment you can make in your future. It will give you market separation and build a robust product pipeline that will cure any quarterly concerns.
Best example: Apple voted Fast Companies most innovative company of 2018. Tim Cook said “We don’t believe in using our customers as a laboratory. What we have that I think is unique is patience. We have patience to wait until something is great before we ship it.” Many CEO’s would do well if they can ignore Wall Street – even for a short time, so that they can invest in the future.
8. Be Optimistic
Paint the picture of the future and bring everyone on the ride with you. Fight against the fear of change. Many people and many companies are scared to try new ideas – because there is no track record or guaranteed revenue stream. So they become paralyzed. What they should be terrified of is sticking to the status quo. More companies have perished by not generating new ideas. Not every new idea will work, but a 1 in 5 batting average is something to strive for.
Best example: Elon Musk is the world’s best at describing a clear and inspirational vision of the future. As a result, it buys his team time to invent and perfect new ideas. Tesla would not have been able to compete the first few years if Mr. Musk had not painted the picture of where the company was going. And when the early Space X rockets crashed, Mr. Musk evangelized just how far private space travel could go.
9. Build Momentum
It’s important to get a few small wins early. The innovation process takes 3-5 years for most brands. More innovation programs have been mothballed because they didn’t produce early results. You can start with “Mini-innovations” while you are reaching for the epic revolutions. Getting early wins builds confidence in leadership and in your team.
Worst example: Xerox had a treasure trove of ideas in the 80’s and 90’s, but they had trouble bringing any of them to market. As a result, they shut down the program. Steve Jobs was able to leverage their work. He came in and took many of their best ideas including windows, pull down menus and the mouse. He then brought them to market in less than 2 years.
10. Beware of the Small and Nimble
Once you have established some wins and you are building momentum – don’t sit back and relax. The biggest and best companies have failed because they ignore smaller and more nimble businesses. Blockbuster ignored Netflix. Blackberry was un-prepared for the iPhone. Sears couldn’t adapt to Wall-mart and Target. The best brands on this list have found ways re-invent themselves. Don’t be on the pile of dead companies that didn’t invest in the future.
Worst example: Kodak was perfectly positioned to invent and dominate the digital camera market. They had been the pioneer of the Brownie portable camera, Kodachrome film, and hand held movie cameras. Yet management scoffed at the digital camera. In fact, they had built an early digital camera, but the pixel quality was poor and it was expensive. If they had seen the big picture they could own a majority of the cell phone cameras today.
Sean McDowell is a designer and inventor with 20+ years of experience at Nike. He learned from some of the best business and creative leaders in the world. The former vice president of innovation has over 56 United States utility patents and has work featured in the Smithsonian Museum as well as the Museum of Modern Art. McDowell was the Vice President and Creative Director of Nike Running, Creative Director of the Olympics and VP Design & Innovation at Converse.
He has played a critical role in bringing many technologies to market including: Flyknit, Flywire, Nike Free, Shox, Lunar foam, VaporMax, the Renew Collection and 4% effort. Sean is the founder of Fountain Design – a product design agency that specializes in innovation and sustainability. They focus on complex problem solving, discovering new market opportunities and bringing a fresh perspective to businesses.