About five years ago I wrote what I thought was a really great book. No, it didn’t sell nearly as well as some of my other books, but we have all had that experience haven’t we – we have a product we think will be hot that turns out to be, well, not so hot?
The book is called The Big Idea: How Business Innovators Get Great Ideas to Market. The idea was to look at 30 transformative, innovative products that went from kooky inspiration to influential societal game changer. It was sort of like the old Paul Harvey radio show The Rest of the Story, but for business. I looked at the fascinating back stories of products like
· Liquid Paper (The first white-out)
· The Xerox machine
· Kitty Litter
We also looked at some clunkers to see what went wrong – things like New Coke, the DeLorean, and the Apple Lisa.
So what does that have to do with you? Plenty, and it’s this: If you are looking to innovate, whether it be a new product or a new business, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. From what I learned from studying these great business innovators and their success and failures can essentially be boiled down to 7 Rules for Successful Innovation:
1. Think of things that never were and ask ‘why not?”: Bobby Kennedy’s famous motto is an apt description for the beginning of business innovation. Great ideas can strike at any time, and out of the blue. George de Mestral came up with the idea for Velcro after he took a walk in the woods and wanted to find out why those tiny little burrs stuck to his socks (the burrs are made up of almost microscopic hooks and socks are made of loops. Velcro therefore is a hook and loop system.)
2. The Power of One: You probably know by now that the idea may be the easy part; it’s the execution that is hard. That is why behind almost any great innovative product you will a fairly obsessed individual. It took Douglas Englebart almost a decade to take his vision from idea to reality. And we are all grateful he did, as interacting with a computer without his mouse would be difficult indeed.
3. KISS (Keep it Simple, . . . ) Why could no one program a VCR? Because it was impossible, complicated. Why did TiVo break out? Because programming a DVR is simple. If you want people to adopt your newfangled product, you have to make it easy to learn. The first Xerox machine (the 914) had a knob for the number of desired copies and another to print. That’s it.
4. First is best: The so-called first mover’s advantage is real, and it can make a huge difference by allowing you to set the terms. Amazon.com was the first big online retailer. Post-its were first and Kitty Litter was first. Being first gives you a vital head start.
5. Try, try again: Most great innovators did not get it right on the first try, or second or third. But they kept plugging away. The first microwave oven (created after a scientist noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted when he stood near a magnetron tube) was five feet tall, weighed 750 lbs, and cost $5,000. It took years to get it to where it is today.
6. It’s risky business: Entrepreneurship is the willingness to take a risk with money to make money, but innovation entrepreneurs take risk to a whole new level. Creating a brand new thing and getting people to learn about it, and then buy it, is no easy feat. Not only did Babe Ruth hold the record for the most homeruns for over 50 years, he also held the record for the most strike outs.
7. Synergy is necessary: Synergy, a term coined by my personal hero Buckminster Fuller, has come to mean the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is especially true with innovation. Great teams often make great products. Earl Tupper created Tupperwear, but it was Browning Wise who invented the Tupperwear party.
When it comes to innovation, the quote sometimes attributed to Goethe had it right: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.”