Ripple Innovation: 4 Steps to Discovering New Ideas

The key to innovation is looking at things differently, not creating ideas from thin air. The four-step ripple effect can help you find the innovation you're looking for.
May 06, 2013

When businesses lose their creativity and ability to innovate, top executives and business owners do one of two things: They order in doughnuts, bagels and lots of coffee and call a staff meeting, then sit around a conference table, brainstorming the same old ideas, hoping someone comes up with something new. Or they hire a consultant, who usually knows less about their day-to-day routines than they do, and hope he or she can find a new way to innovate.

Neither way works very well. Why? Because innovation is really about paying attention and seeing things you never noticed before—and seeing them in a new and different way. Brainstorming regularly falls into an ineffective loop of the same five ideas. And most (but not all) outside consultants bring an innovative approach, but fail to make the change stick.

If you’re feeling like your innovation generator is stuck and you're having trouble getting traction, use the four steps of ripple innovation to feed your creativity and jumpstart your innovations. I call this process “ripple innovation,” because it expands out from the initial splash of thought in rings, just like the ripples that form when you throw a rock into a pond. The biggest wave is near the center, and the farthest reaching wave is on the outside. Start with your splash—what you want to innovate. Then follow these four ripples to find it.

Ripple 1: Find the Solution Inside Your Company

What are you currently doing in another part of your business that you can use to drive the innovation you need in this part of your business?

For example, UPS used one little innovation to speed up its delivery times. It looked for existing drivers who were completing their routes faster than average each day (tip: look for what’s working, not what’s broken). It found that certain high performers wouldn’t put their keys in their pockets when delivering a package. Instead, they would have their truck key hanging off their pinky finger.  

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When they got back to the truck, they didn’t need to fumble through their pockets looking for their keys. The three or so seconds it saved on each delivery added up: Three seconds times 30 deliveries a day, times 200 times a year, saved about five hours a year per driver. Not bad when you realize that UPS has 240,000 drivers. That little pinky innovation is saving UPS the need to hire 600 additional drivers to cover the lost time.

Ripple 2: Find the Solution Inside Your Industry

If you can’t find the innovation inside the first ring (your business), search for it in the next ring: your industry. Ask yourself what's your competition doing that you can use to innovate in your business?

Sam Walton once said, “I believe I am Kmart’s best customer. I have visited almost every one of their stores.” He constantly evaluated other retailers and copied what they did best. Among the many innovations he extracted from his competition was the centralization of the checkout process. Instead of having a checkout in each department of the store, he centralized everything to one checkout line at the front of the store. Walmart leaped forward and set a new standard that we see everywhere today.

Ripple 3: Find the Solution in Any Industry

If you can’t innovate from within your business or your industry, try examining other industries.

Vernon Hill, the founder of Commerce Bank, wanted to make banking ultra-convenient. Banks were notorious for being anything but convenient for their customers, so Hill looked outside his industry. He found that fast-food restaurants had a lock on drive-through convenience. He took their best innovations and made them the new standard for banking—late hours every day, open 7 days a week, and he even copied the happy meal trick, by putting a doggie treat in for cars coming through the drive thru with dogs. Hill ultimately sold to TD Bank for $6 billion.

Ripple 4: Find the Solution in Nature

When there’s not a solution inside your business, your industry or any industry, it’s time to look at the widest ripple in the innovation splash—look at the entire world around you. Nature is the ultimate innovator and inventor.

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Case in point? George de Mestral found his dog covered with burrs. Curious about how stubbornly the burrs clung to his dog’s fur, he took a closer look. Then he replicated what Mother Nature had shown him, by making Velcro. The rest is entrepreneurial history.

Remember, innovation is just a matter of looking at the world and your business differently. Instead of innovating from thin air, start with ripple innovation. The innovations you seek are all around you already—you just need to seek them out.

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Photos from top: iStockphoto, Getty Images, iStockphoto