The Innovation Process - Step One: Ideas
The process of innovation involves identifying a need, generating
some ideas about how to meet that need, designing a new product
or service and then developing and marketing it. This is about
the first two steps; identifying a need and having new ideas.
These two steps often go together, especially when approached
using the following technique.
It's a simple idea: To generate innovative new ideas, find
the things that others are not doing well, or just not doing
at all. Having identified these deficiencies, design a better
service or product based on what customers really want or need.
A real-life example follows.
There was an article in Forbes magazine recently on a Japanese
company called Kumon that teaches kids around the world how to
do basic math as well as read and write. With over a thousand
centers in the United States alone, they already have 194,000
students here, and are growing larger despite almost no advertising.
Why with universal and free public education in the U.S.,
can a Japanese company can do so well teaching the basics to
children? A simple answer: The public schools don't do it very
well in some parts of the country. You can blame that on modern
educational theories, "feel good" grading, distracted
children or whatever, but the parents want more than they get
from the public system, and many of them are willing to pay the
relatively small amount it takes to get their kids educated to
a higher level. Kumon recognized this deficiency in the public
schools and makes a good profit charging less than $120 for two
months of lessons.
Starting Your Own Innovation Process
It's probably not surprising to you that government services
are a great place to look for deficiencies that may suggest innovative
new services and products. Another example can be found in employment
services. The government agencies are not that effective at getting
people back to work. Unemployment systems are often abused too.
This suggests a need for something new, perhaps a subscription-based
employment company of some sort. Their customers could pay a
monthly fee while working (just as they currently pay through
employers for unemployment benefits). If they lose their jobs
they're provided either a new job or unemployment compensation.
Many government services simply provide information and then
require the unemployed worker to press a button on the phone
to indicate that he or she looked for work. There isn't much
incentive for bureaucrats to monitor the progress of the unemployed
person. A private service would really want to find the person
a job, especially if the company otherwise had to continue paying
out benefits. Most likely they would require a worker to take
any job offered or lose their weekly check. That might cut unemployment
in half in some parts of the country.
This basic innovation process can be applied in many areas
of government. People have tried to deliver mail in busy cities
by bicycle for example. Often they have been far more efficient
than the post office. They are inevitably shut down by the government,
but perhaps there is a way to get around the laws providing monopoly
power to the government in this area.
In the private sector there are often services that are deficient
or incomplete not only in a given company or two, but in whole
industries at times. I can point to one recent example. I wanted
to install a blog on one of my websites, and downloaded free
software. My wife did the actual installation since it would
have taken me five days to figure out and it took her only five
hours. However, the important point here is that this was software
that promised "easy five minute installation." It was
perhaps the easiest in the industry - even at five hours or so.
I hate spending time on supposedly "easy" things like
that, and if someone actually made it easy (and five minutes),
that's an innovation that I would have paid $100 for without
To start the innovation process then, listen for complaints
like mine about "easy" software. When you hear the
same complaint about a product or service over and over, there's
a market for a better alternative. Begin with your own complaints
and frustrations. See if they're shared by other people. Another
personal example: I hate a slow computer. Many other people do
to. Although there are already "computer doctors" out
there, maybe a great innovation here would be a service that
specializes in one thing only: making your computer run as fast
as it can. In fact, I recently paid $50 for just that to a traditional
computer doctor (it took him almost an hour). I would have called
the specialist if there was one.
You can also look for products and services (or combinations
of these) that are not complete in some way. We took our cat
to the vet recently, and he did a great job, but I had questions
later. I knew I would only get the receptionist if I called,
so it occurred to me that it would have been nice if he had a
website where we could get information and email questions to
him. Answering questions would almost certainly generate more
business for him (he could remind us to get that last round of
shots we've been delaying). Or perhaps the innovation here would
be a business that sets up such websites for all of the thousands
of vets and other doctors out there.
Notice deficiencies as well as "incomplete" services
and products. That's how you identify needs that then can suggest
innovative new ideas. It's a simple but effective way to start