Maybe you have identified an industry segment that’s fallen so behind the times that it’s just waiting to be disrupted and transformed. Maybe you’ve even put a business plan together and you’re starting to generate excitement among potential investors. But have you determined if there are other recent launched (and potentially better) products or services on the market that could be a threat to business or other almost identical to yours? Or, conversely, have you developed a solution to a problem with so little interest that there’s a reason why the market has lain fallow for so long? And if your product still passes these and other proof-of-concept tests, are you sure you’ve thought through the risks and hurdles to implementation?
Most businesspeople tend to go back to the same places for inspiration and innovative ideas, either because those founts of wisdom have worked well before or they don’t know where to go for that kind of help. Large companies have formidable research and development facilities to develop new technologies, skunkworks to test how these technologies can be put together for new products, teams of strategists and management consultants to dream up new business models, and marketing professionals to tell them how receptive the defined set of buyers are to a new product or service.
However, these legions of well-meaning employees – including contractors and outside experts – often don’t have the necessary disruptive mindset and ability to think beyond what they’ve been doing for years.
The alternative for business leaders, especially disruptive ones, is to go out into the world in search of knowledge and inspiration. But this requires a significant commitment of time, energy and funds. The fact is that despite the ubiquity of every conceivable kind of data and information and increasingly easy access to that huge body of knowledge, a single human being can’t begin to comprehend more than a tiny fraction of what’s out there, let alone easily stumble on an idea for the next Amazon or Netflix.
Once you’ve started the journey, however, you’ll begin to find a lot of fascinating and potentially successful ideas in places you least expect to find them. They may come from industries other than your own, walks in nature, the performing arts and entertainment, literature, and so on. A few enterprising people have built successful organizations that provide senior executives forms to discuss new ideas, such as business schools, TED talks, the World Economic Forum, and so on. All worth getting involved with in some way.
Consultants can be a useful source of good business ideas as well — provided you pick the right one. Several consulting firms, for example, organize what they call “Innovation Safaris” to Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley. Generally, these trips are part of a larger transformation project and are intended to help client executives shift their conventional thinking to something more disruptive and bold.
Unfortunately, many of the resources mentioned above are either too expensive or not available to the average small organization. In addition, leaders of smaller businesses often find it harder than their big-company counterparts to arrange an already-packed schedule to go to many external meetings. They have to work harder to get the knowledge they need to identify and react to a disruption.
There are other resources available to SMB leaders much closer to home, and often, these are not very costly.
- Despite what Steve Jobs said to the contrary, great insights and ideas often come from a company’s clients and customers. These key constituencies should always be represented in any internal strategic process, not only for the ideas and insight they generate but also because by involving them, you’re already enrolling them in the possibilities being created.
often do customer interviews as part of strategy projects I perform as a consultant. I always remind clients that I shouldn’t just interview their most loyal customers; I should also talk to those no longer actively purchasing from them. I find using in- depth customer feedback—both positive and negative—is the best way to focus a management team on what is most important. Often, simple tweaks or a few small disruptions based on the right customer feedback can lead to huge financial and market gains.
- One thing Steve Jobs did advocate at Apple was studying art. The company’s internal training program, Apple University, teaches the same design lessons used by Picasso to create some of the most iconic and recognizable images in the history of art. One of the key concepts involves eliminating unnecessary details and boiling ideas down to only the most essential elements, as Picasso did in many of his most famous paintings.
- Biometrics or biomimicry is the practice of studying nature to find ideas. More specifically, it is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving problems humans are faced with, many of which find their way into the business world.
Living organisms have evolved well-adapted structures and materials over geological time through natural selection. Biometrics has given rise to new technologies inspired by biological solutions at the macro- and nanoscales. Humans have looked at nature for answers to problems throughout our existence. Nature has solved such engineering problems as self-healing abilities, environmental exposure tolerance and resistance, hydrophobicity, self-assembly, and harnessing solar energy.
One of the clients even found the inspiration to a pricing problem for which he was trying to find a disruptive solution when he went to a hamburger restaurant that offers a variety of add-on options at different price points. After ordering a hamburger laden down with condiments, proteins, and vegetables, he suddenly saw the answer he was looking for. The interesting thing is that this client owns and runs a software business. At first glance, you might wonder what he could have found to inspire him at some ungodly hour in downtown Manhattan, but you never know when a light is going to come on. You just need to be open and ready for it.
It goes without saying that reading literature and books on business, leadership, and current events—really anything—is still probably one of the best ways to find ideas and inspiration. A good friend of mine with a fintech business loves to read about Michael Bloomberg’s start-up pains and subsequent journey to becoming one of the great entrepreneurs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This has helped my friend survive some of the greatest setbacks of his own journey and given him the inspiration to continue in even the bleakest moments.
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