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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 hesitation.

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 the process.


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Innovation Process

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