“A true innovator does best, what he doesn’t know best.” ― Haresh Sippy, Indian visionary, leader and industrialist
Companies know they need to innovate, so they often task process or product experts with the responsibility for developing next-generation ideas. The rationale behind this is that product experts know the area best, so they must be the ones who can more easily extend the boundaries. That may be true, but it may not be considered as innovation.
Extending the Boundaries vs Innovating
Coming up with a “new and improved” version of an existing product is a good thing. It can provide a quick uptick in sales as customers try the new version, and it can extend the lifecycle of aging or more established products. But extending boundaries rarely breaks new ground.
Let’s face it. New, improved versions are a lot like the old versions they replace. Even “New Coke” was still a cola drink, and “New Tide” and “Old Tide” detergents are both pretty good at cleaning dirty laundry.
At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), laundry was a big topic of discussion. But new washers and dryers that automatically sync their cycles are still washers and dryers. True innovation would be something like clothes that never need cleaning because they repel dirt or that have micro-layers that peel off after each wearing so the dirt peels away with the layer. A far cry from what exists today, but still an innovative idea nonetheless.
Appliance engineers—experts in their field—think in terms of what they know, not what’s new. And that happens in every industry, with almost every product.
How Subject Matter Experts Approach Innovation
According to The National Academies Press, product experts have a general process they adhere to:
- They notice features and patterns of information.
- They have organized knowledge reflective of their deep understanding of the topic.
- Their knowledge is made conditional on a set of circumstances.
They look to stretch the boundaries. Which is exactly the issue with expecting them to innovate.
The article goes on to explain that experts’ flexibility in approaching a problem varies, so some experts may be amazing innovators. Others, not so much.
How Newcomers Approach a Problem
Inexperienced newcomers—whether new to the workforce or new to the industry—tend to approach a problem or task by looking for a solution. They aren’t constrained by what they know or what already exists. They just want to get the existing problem off their backs with the least amount of effort. So, instead of looking for ways to create a “better” laundry appliance, they come up with ideas for the next version. Some may not be practical, but some will be. And therein lies your innovation.
Bringing Experts and Newcomers Together to Drive Workplace Innovation
Most companies can’t throw away years of product development and marketing efforts on a totally new idea, but that doesn’t mean they can only move forward with incremental improvements. The best way is to set up teams focused on the problem and ensure that the team has an equal number of experts and non-experts. It’s also crucial to make sure the team establishes ground rules. Some examples include:
- Every team member’s input is equally valuable
- Every idea is evaluated with an open mind
- Nobody can say “That won’t work…” or “We tried that once…”
- Everybody gets a chance to speak
It’s critical to know the team’s objective. For example, if the objective is defined as “identify the necessary features in the next generation of our products,” that’s exactly what you’ll get. The team will extend the boundaries of the existing products.
Contrast this with the ideas that a team with a different objective comes up with—say “How will people want to accomplish this task in 5 or 10 years?” Or maybe “What will this task look like in the future, and what’s the easiest way to get it done?”
The groups with those charters will come up with very different ideas than the first group. And there you’ll find innovation. It doesn’t take an expert—just an open mind.