A few weeks ago I wrote about a stodgy safety products manufacturer that dramatically increased sales of its goggles by studying fashion trends. I’m not suggesting we all start subscribing to Vogue, Glamour or Elle (although maybe that is not a bad idea). What we do need to do is start looking beyond the walls of our businesses on a regular basis.
Innovation doesn’t always require pulling groundbreaking ideas out of thin air. In fact, in today’s markets innovation increasingly comes from two sources: learning to see patterns where others don’t, and finding ways to adapt what others are already doing to our business models. For most of us, this requires expanding our sources of information, as well as stretching our brains to get us thinking differently and looking at the world in new ways.
Expand your sources of information
Over the course of a single year, the typical American reads 100 newspapers and 36 magazines, and watches almost 2,500 hours of television. We also listen to more than 700 hours of radio, buy three books and 20 CDs, and talk on the phone for more than 500 hours. And that doesn’t include texts, tweets, updates, pokes, and all the other social media stuff many of us now do on a daily basis.
Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Maybe so, but for most people it comes from the same sources over and over again, especially in business. As leaders, we tend to gather data about our customers, markets, and industries from similar sources while paying scant attention to what goes on outside our companies or industry.
To expand your data-gathering horizons, make a list of all your information sources according to the percentage of data they provide. Then ask questions like: How much time do we spend collecting information? What are our primary sources of data? Are these still reliable sources for our business or industry? Where else can we look?
Conduct a cold-eye review
Another technique for gaining fresh perspectives is to have non-experts research various aspects of your business. For example, have your CFO look at customer data, your head of manufacturing look at customer info, and so on. When done well, this “cold eye review” often finds the obvious (things previously missed because everyone is used to them) and occasionally finds the unique.
Cold eye reviewers can uncover unsafe conditions in a plant because workers stopped seeing the situation a long time ago. They can identify new applications for a current product because they don’t know what it’s supposed to do or not do. They can also uncover significant opportunities to reduce costs, cut cycle time, and/or dramatically shift processes because they don’t know about the way things “are supposed to be.”
Have your cold eye reviewer give a presentation that communicates their general approach to the review, the data found, a summary of key points, and any recommendations. Follow that up with any questions you might have, and a discussion of what is possible based on the data presented.
Stimulate your brain
In order to adapt ideas from other areas, it helps to loosen up our brains with the following techniques:
- Go outside. Go outside your office, take off your shoes, and walk barefoot in the grass. Breathe deeply and just listen to the sounds. You’ll be amazed how these simple tactile sensations can take your brain in a whole different direction.
- Stretch. I mean really stretch – first your body and then your mind. Stand up and lift your arms above your head. Roll your shoulders. Inhale and exhale slowly. Now pause and think about something from a different perspective. Ask yourself, “What if it could be different? What if there is a better way? Who have I met this week and what did I learn from them? How can I apply what I learned?”
- Do a “walking sponge” session. Take a walk and try to absorb as many new ideas as you can. Turn off your thinker and focus on seeing, hearing, feeling and smelling.
- Daydream. Let your mind wander. Instead of trying to think of an idea or solution, don’t try. Let your subconscious work on it for a while.
If these don’t grab you, just try something different. If you’re right-handed, use your left. Drive home from work a different way. If you bring a sandwich for lunch every day, bring a salad. Or better still, try a kind of food you’ve never had before.
Trying something familiar in a different way just might loosen up your thinking and let you see the world in a different way. You’ll be amazed at what putting on a new pair of goggles can reveal to you (and you’ll look really fashionable doing it)!