One of the more common ways to seek new product ideas is to ask for them. Frequently, sales people will ask buyers what they’d like to see in the way of new products, and market researchers will ask consumers what new products they’d like. Or maybe people in the company sit around a conference room or a coffeepot and imagine what they think customers and consumers might want in the way of new products.
All of these approaches are valid, but all have the same flaw at their core. The people being asked, like those imagining what customers or consumers want, are limited to what they can imagine could exist. This limitation would have totally precluded several of the most dramatic new product innovations of the past few years.
Who imagined a cellular telephone with a screen on which you could manipulate text, icons, almost everything with your fingers, dragging things about and making them larger or smaller -- by either tapping the screen or moving a pair of fingers closer together or further apart -- and so forth. The answer, obviously, was not very many cell phone makers predicted this; perhaps only one, Apple, which wasn't even a cell phone manufacturer or seller at the time. That might have been an advantage because Apple was not afflicted with the myopia that comes from “prevailing wisdom” in an industry -- You can’t do this; you must do that; and no, that didn’t work before.
Who imagined that independent programmers would gleefully develop tens of thousands of “applications” for this new “smart phone?” Who could imagine doing everything from paying the bills, to navigating to a distant friend’s house while watching progress on the phone’s screen, and simultaneously talking to the friends on that phone about your pending arrival. Few people ever imagined the incredible power of the iPhone. Fortunately, Apple didn’t “just ask around,“ it built upon a truly innovative idea. Steve Jobs and his organization at Apple imagined this product, even though very few consumers could conceive of such a device or how powerful it could be.
Once the iPhone existed, it was easier to imagine a larger version, with a touch screen interface, and yet, few people asked for one. Apple developed it, and as people saw its potential -- for reading books, magazines and newspapers, or doing email, watching videos and more, another unexpected innovation was born.
Wii, X-Box 360 & Kinect
When Wii came out and made human-interactive video games popular with its “wand like” devices, consumers were once again surprised and delighted. Who would think of bowling or playing golf or exercising and dancing “interactively” with your TV set at home? Fed did; but it was possible and it worked. Now, wonder of wonders: Microsoft’s Xbox 360 introduced Kinect and that world of possibilities exploded again. Now the machine senses the motions of your body, your arms and legs, etc. in front of the TV and superimposes them on the video action. But nobody (or at least very few) thought to ask for such an amazing and mesmerizing device.
Why? Because most humans are limited to what they have seen, know, understand, can imagine, but based on their knowledge of what might be possible and their current environment’s limits. They don’t know what technology, creativity, and a group’s creative collaboration can yield until someone shows it to them.
Medical Devices -- the CT Scanner
The most ingenious, innovative and creative humans ask questions like “how could we do that?” How could we use marvelous blends of technology and utility? In the medical field, people wondered how to look inside the human body and X-rays were created.
Someone, wondered how to do it better, and CT scans were developed, taking X-ray-like pictures but with much greater clarity/resolution and each like a little slice of the body being studied. The CT “scans” provide a composite image far better than the X-ray, but first someone had to say they wanted it. Then someone had to imagine how it might be possible.
Who imagined that an automobile air bag that could inflate in such a short time that the mere impact of a collision could trigger it, and it would inflate before the occupant could collide with the hard, unfriendly interior of the car? Someone did, and we are all safer because they did.
If Dreams Can Fly -- Why Can’t I?
These are all instances of innovation at its best. Innovation doesn’t ask, “What do you want next?” Why? Because you can’t know what you might want if it were possible. Innovation asks what might be possible, and if it were, what could we do with that. And wouldn’t that be neat, exciting, valuable and desirable. If the Wright brothers had not imagined that “man could fly” -- albeit in a machine -- there might be no airplanes.
Next time, do not limit your innovation to what you know, or what others might say they want. Limit it to what you wish or dream might be possible -- and then figure out how to make that wish and dream come true. There are no limits to the human imagination except those we impose on it.
John L. Mariotti is President and CEO of The Enterprise Group. He was President of Huffy Bicycles, Group President of Rubbermaid Office Products Group, and now serves as a Director on several corporate boards. He has written eight business books. His electronic newsletter THE ENTERPRISE is published weekly. His Web site is Mariotti.net.