“Innovation isn’t a department,” write Mohanbir Sawhney and Sanjay Khosla in their article, Where to Look for Insight. “It’s a mindset that should permeate your entire enterprise.”
It is looking at the familiar from an entirely new perspective and uncovering possibilities others missed; finding connections and parallels in dissimilar realms; discerning opportunities in failures.
Not many organizations, including associations, encourage what the authors call “imaginative understanding.” Yet, as this article points out, “Several Fortune 500 companies have been founded on a single insight about what customers want. Examples include Starbucks bringing the European café experience to coffee-drinking in the US; and The Body Shop building “on the notion that buyers of beauty products care about humane animal-testing practices.”
What’s more, the capacity for innovation, what I call in my new book “inventive thinking,” is not just about building new, global companies. Every pressing question that leaders grapple with today—from attrition to member engagement and growth—require capabilities for inventive thinking, beyond existing categories and patterns. The faster and the more unpredictable the world around us, the more imperative the need for innovative, inventive thinking!
Where do insights come from? The authors offer seven “insight channels,” gleaned from their research and experiences. With some tweaking, they can be applied to associations and other knowledge-service industries.
Anomalies: the article cites the example of Lamoda, an accessory and fashion products company, that succeeded in building a successful e-commerce company in Russia by providing solutions to the anomalies in the Russian economy. Its solution was to essentially bring “the store, the style consultant, and the cash register to the customer’s front door” to eliminate inefficiencies and financial anomalies, such as the lack of credit cards. What anomalies in your industry or customers’ experiences might you be able to solve?
Confluence: “New social habits, technologies, and areas of interest are forming all the time across all facets of life,” the article claims. “The smart innovator looks at how they fit together.” The authors challenge us to consider how a demographic trend—for example, the aging population; an economic trend—rising costs in health care; and technology trends might be combined and converted into new services such as “remote health care monitoring for seniors.” What major trends are affecting your members and their industries? Might developments in technology, changes in your staff expertise or trends such as customization and peer communities be deployed imaginatively to address customer problems?
Frustrations: what keeps your members up at nights? What frustrations do they have with the way they conduct business, communicate with their staff, deliver information to clients; hire, learn or develop? Understanding in depth your members’ “pains” that preoccupy them and the frustrations that cause them daily irritation and inefficiency could be your channel for innovative solutions that make you indispensable to their success.
Orthodoxies: often great insights and solutions stem from questioning the way things are done and looking for alternatives. Associations, in particular, have a very difficult time imagining alternatives to the “association way”—from governance and practices, to assumptions, definitions of “member” and models. Instill healthy questioning of even the most sacred cows in your association and challenge the most established assumptions.
Extremities: the authors call for a focus on those customers who deviate from your core customer profile and are, therefore, often ignored. Yet these are the customers who can become sources of growth and innovation. For associations, the marginal members represent the future. Scientific associations often discourage or ignore non-academic members or those who have crossed disciplines, yet these members point to where the profession is going. Most associations cater to core members—those who already have bought into the value of their current membership and benefits model-- and treat new types of members and professionals as outliers. Yet in most associations, core members represent the past or quickly fading present while the “outliers” are in the process of re-shaping the future.
Voyages: do you instinctively turn to staff, peers or board committees for solutions or new ideas? Voyagers are those who journey to different worlds for such answers. They don’t simply rely on information about their members to understand them but live in their members’ world, like participants-observers in an ethnographic project. When your business gets stale, travel to the outside world of your customers and markets to extricate yourself from the organizational, business as usual perspective, and look at the world through the eyes of your stakeholders.
Analogies: “Can you import innovation even from a place that seems far removed or exotic,” the authors want to know. Extracting winning concepts from other industries, adapting and applying them to your business are major sources of insight and innovation. Dan Palestrant, the founder and previous CEO of Sermo, a hugely successful online community for physicians and their suppliers, did just that. When he was a hospital physician making his daily rounds, he noticed that the most productive conversations among doctors took place spontaneously around the water cooler. This is where substantive cases were discussed and solved and early inventions took root. What if, Palestrant asked himself, he could replicate the water cooler gatherings and conversations virtually and expand participation to doctors around the globe? It was this insight that gave birth to Sermo. The article quoted above gives the example of Greg Lambrecht who came up with his Coravin Wine Access System—allowing for wine to be preserved after uncorking it—“ by co-opting ideas from the world of surgery.” Association leaders are especially reluctant to see the relevance of any example outside associations. This is a serious loss of innovation. The authors of this article “advise innovators to study a wide range of unrelated functional groups and industries to look for analogies that they can adapt to their domains.”
Instead or racking your brain for new solutions through the usual avenues and sources—internal committees and new programs—look for anomalies you can provide solutions to; consider what new trends you might be able to leverage against other trends; search for solutions to customers’ frustrations; challenge assumptions and look for alternative ways to run your business or innovate; observe and partner with “deviant” members to seek new forms of services and engagement and anticipate the future; interact and co-develop with customers; think boldly about what elements can be “re-interpreted” and applied to your business from other industries.