Last year, I attended a networking session hosted by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs where the guest speaker –Fredrik Haren– founder of The Interesting Organization– presented an introduction to his new book on “The Developing World“. Haren said that developed countries needed to be like developing countries where an “explosion” of creativity was driving changes to the world and that “creativity” was about “Copying” ideas and then using those existing ideas to create something new.
Today’s post is actually not about “Copying” ideas to make new ones, but about “Expanding” the use of one idea into another one. This post was inspired by a New York Times article I read through Huffington Post called “How the Microplane Grater Escaped the Garage“.
(In the three weeks I spent writing this post, the article has since morphed from “Expanding” ideas to how I think organisations can learn from what is happening today and Be Innovative and Inventive.)
Basically, Microplane is a trademarked series of photo-etched, steel, woodworking tools owned, designed and manufactured by Grace Manufacturing. Used for grating, grinding and sanding wood, it gained popularity amongst home cooks for its grating function, but later became popular with professional chefs and bartenders when it was found that these tools gave their food additional edge. An example as written in the article:
“When you grind a hard cheese, you get little cubes with little surface area. When you use a Microplane and shave a cheese into ribbons, you get five times the surface area.” – Leonard Lee, founder of Lee Valley Tools in Ottawa, Canada
As you can see, it was the consumer that invented a new use for the product, not the manufacturer. To Grace Manufacturing’s credit, they were open-minded about their products’ new market segment and leveraged the opportunity to build sustainable new markets by creating product lines tweaked specifically for culinary, medical and personal grooming purposes.
Based on the article (and a little more), here are my five points on how an organisation can be innovative and inventive:
1. “What are we good at doing?”
If an organisation has a top-selling product, or service, there usually are competencies that drives superior results.
For Grace Manufacturing’s case, it was simply to ask themselves “what am I good at doing?” and then transforming that ability into a viable business. As a result, they evolved their business from printer parts manufacturing, into woodworking tool manufacturing – all based on their competency to “build sharp things”.
Once competencies are determined, build a portfolio of related product or services where this competency is its core. If the product or service veers too far from the core competency, the organisation will suffer higher costs and face higher risk from diversification.
2. “Be Open to Possibilities”
When told by customers that their woodworking tools had found its way into the kitchen, Grace Manufacturing’s second generation of leaders like Maria Grace, could have reacted with the same indignance as her father, Richard Grace, who said that he felt disappointed that the serious woodworking tools he was making was used in the kitchen. Instead, she had a laugh about it and accepted the order. The start of a new market opportunity.
Very often, organisations sold on their product or service’s superiority, or original purpose, often lose their ability to look at opportunities from another perspective. Even when they try, there are so many barriers erected and hardened mindsets that “going back to square one” would be an inevitable ending.
3. “Don’t Stop at Product Innovation”
Product or service innovation alone is not a sustainable strategy for organisations. With fierce disruptions from technology shifts, organisations are facing new competitors in a different competitive landscape, which has broken down many traditional barriers to entry, as well as conventional ways of conducting business.
To have sustainable futures, organisations need to be innovative and inventive in their business – constantly renewing their business model, and reinventing the entire business.
An example of an organisation in constant renewal would be IBM. Having reinvented itself several times throughout its corporate lifetime since the 1890s, IBM is a leading solutions and services company today.
In the article, Maria Grace said that they were a “form-follows-function kid of people” where their start point for all their products stemmed from their ability to engineer sharp tools for efficient work. From there, they would expand the repertoire of products to meet specific grating and shaving needs in the culinary, wood work and medical fields.
Another company known for its innovative approach and inventiveness is Apple. With its iPhone and iPad devices, Apple disrupted the mobile phone and computing markets by identifying how people wanted to interact with their mobile and computing devices FIRST, BEFORE developing the hardware and a regulated software ecosystem to deliver the experience. Not only did Apple create a good quality product, but defined its product with the experience when using the product – a dimension that no other mobile phone or computing device offered, even till today.
5. “Don’t ‘Think Outside the Box’“
In the early years of school, there was once (maybe twice) where I had been too distracting (meaning, talkative) in class and was told to stand outside the classroom as punishment. I remembered that while I was standing outside the room, I would also be looking inside because it was discomforting to be outside the room which I had grown accustomed to sitting inside of.
It’s the same when we are told at work to “Think Outside the Box”. Honestly, it isn’t easy because we’ve learnt to accept what was inside the box, that thinking outside of it would constitute rebellion.
So there we have it! My answer to “Thinking outside the box” is basically “To Rebel”.
Therefore the re-stated name of my third point is “Don’t ‘Think Outside the Box’. Rebel!”
5. “Don’t ‘Think Outside the Box’.
In the case of most known rebels, they often questioned “the system” which they saw as “limiting” and fought for a more liberal set of ideas through unconventional way of thought.
Likewise, an organisation needs to learn how to question the relevance of existing products, services, thoughts, strategies and business models in the organisation’s future.
Very often, these questions can stir up uncomfortable issues that key supporters at the management level would turn their heads from and hope that the matter will pass quietly. For example, “Why are some CEOs still being paid large bonuses when the company barely survived bankruptcy?”; or “Why do large commercial banks not have a thorough and ethical system of balances and checks to ensure that bad banking products are not sold to customers?”
Final Note (and disclaimer) on Being Innovation and Inventiveness:
On a cynical note, consider it fair warning that while “rebelling” serves to create new thoughts leading to innovation and inventions, it also carries a large risk of career martyrdom in the event the road to innovation hits some bumps, and the project gets terminated prematurely.
If you or your organisation face resistance in the form of “it’s always been like that”, or “why are you always rocking the boat”, I have two suggestions:
- Suck it in and Grit your Teeth – because you will be in for a tough ride where its end may damage you in many ways.
- Take the hint and Back Off. Your organisation or boss is not ready to take the path of innovation or inventiveness – even if they say they are.