Waiting for Apple to launch their watch, observing Google working on their driverless car projects, having a sneak-peek into the virtual reality projects, companies may understandably feel they fall behind.
How not to give in under pressure when you not only need to keep up, but want to create amazing, game-changing products?

One way of looking at the innovation is to see it as something that happens on the edge of an industry. You let yourself be inspired by what others are doing and combine your observations with the unique value proposition that you want to offer. Still, building on the ideas of others involves tons of analyses and research, followed with a great amount of conceptual and production work. It can be daunting and discouraging, and will not secure the future for the new product. Hardly anyone has the resources of Google or Apple to take the risk lightly.

Is there another way of looking at things then? Some time ago I read an article ‘Innovating on the Cheap’ in HBR that gives some simple, but valuable tips on how to build innovative products with smaller resources . Let me quote some of the insights, I find particularly useful:

Use the Ideas You Rejected

Every project you have abandoned may have interesting elements. In 2004 the Ryobi Tools brand introduced a 10-inch-long band saw equipped with a dust collection system called Silent Vac. For clients the solution seemed innovative, the dust collector itself, however, was actually created years before. It was an element of a grinder that never reached the production stage. The market and its barriers change – something which did not work 2 years earlier may be a great offer today. So, every company should have a storehouse of rejected concepts and projects and revisit them now and again.

It has turned profitable for the greatest. If you look at how Steve Jobs saved Apple when the company was on the verge of collapse, you will see that it is all about how you embrace projects that are failing:

In the 90s Jobs was running NeXT, when Apple turned to him for help. What he did was reinventing NeXT, the not very successful project, as a software company and selling it to Apple. This allowed Apple to be innovative again. And the rest is history.

A Product Ahead of Its Time

Sometimes, the key to innovation is having a closer look at the products that got produced but have never been recognized. Very often, some products are simply ahead of their time. It also happens that the marketing campaign fails to promote some of the product features.The product never takes off because its users have never been entirely familiar with it.

When the Rain Bird company was implementing its lawn sprinkler nozzle Dual Spray, it highlighted solving the coverage problem as the product’s main advantage. The nozzles not only irrigated the area far away from the sprinkler, but also sprayed some water directly under it, irrigating also the area close to it. The by-product of this concept was that you did not have to frequently move the sprinkler across the lawn, so you used less water as a result. Today, it is the water-use efficiency which is the project’s innovative, main asset.

Products Coming in Sets

At times an in-hand innovation may be locked in a promotion bundle. This was the case with the Craftsman tools. The company decided to add a work-space lamp to the drills. The focus group tests showed that some of the customers felt irritated by the need to pay extra for a drill bundled up with a lamp. At the same time, however, it turned out that some of the customers would like to have more than just one work-space lamp. In the end, a device that  was developed as a mere gadget for the drills, became a stand-alone product. Better still, the demand for the work-space lamps was much greater than the one for the drills. Within only 6 months from the focus groups, the company launched a new line of power tools. The line consisted of numerous products which previously were just additions in promotion packages.

Summing Up

Yes – innovation does happen when you cross industries and the ideas of others may serve as a great inspiration for your company. But, at times, it is enough to look at your own inventory to double check what treasure you have in stock and make sure you do not give it away  for free. ;) It also takes embracing the failure – not only to learn but to innovate. Start a storehouse of abandoned projects and visit it now and again – make sure you will fully exploit your team’s potential and will not miss the great ideas you have at hand.

Urszula Kotowska

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