All great innovations emerge out of rigidity. They are born when someone recognizes that the system – the company, the industry, the country – has frozen and can no longer react to new opportunities or threats. When this rigid state appears in the business world, what you see is a company that is stuck in an old perspective. The competition is also stuck in the old frame, and so are the industry experts, customers, distributors. This state persists until someone with sufficient discontent recognizes the hidden opportunity in the frozen system.
Thus the starting point to innovate is to recognize when the system has fallen so far into a state of rigidity that the time is ripe for a new order of things and thus challenge the rigidity with a new idea. Doing this is not easy. Most rigidity comes not from physical limitations but from mental ones that are harder to recognize and harder to dissect.
Recognizing when the system is stuck
You can learn to understand stuck-ness. Start by familiarizing yourself with the two mental dynamics that characterize the condition, and then analyze your situation to see whether one or both exists. It may be your company or your competition that exhibits these dynamics, in either case you need to understand what is happening.
- The system is stuck in a set of beliefs that prevent people from seeing change as possible.
- The system is living in a story that leads people to inaction.
If you or your competition is experiencing one or both of these dynamics, the current climate is ripe for innovation.
Change is constant, nothing ever stays the same
Because we are susceptible to a natural human tendency to become trapped in beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, identities, or habits we fail to see the need for change. As we grow we start learning to respond to familiar situations unconsciously in the same way we’ve done before, the same thing happens to companies. And when our beliefs, assumptions, attitudes and identities prove false and prevent us from realizing a goal or solving a problem, they become traps. We fall into traps when we stop questioning something and simply accept it.
So then innovations begin when someone questions what others have accepted as ‘the way things are’.
A recent profile by BusinessWeek of BankSimple founder Josh Reich paints a picture:
Ask Josh Reich about banks, and he’s quick to tell you they “suck.” Traditional banks, Reich says, have become giant tangles of computer systems that can’t talk to each other and can scarcely keep track of their customers. So the 32-year-old developed what he calls BankSimple, an alternative bank with “the agility and mindset of a tech company.”
The idea is to provide a bank experience more akin to Twitter than to Chase, with a notification system for debit transactions. After every swipe of a BankSimple card, a message will pop up on the customer’s phone showing the amount charged and the balance—which serves both as a record-keeping tool and an instant fraud alert.
Other examples abound of innovators that recognized the system was stuck and chose to challenge it: Apple’s iPod challenged the belief that music labels would never allow their music to be downloaded, Dell challenged the belief that computer buyers needs hands-on help from retailers before they are willing to buy.
In conclusion, almost any meaningful innovation emerges when someone is dissatisfied with the way things are, recognizes rigidity and brings forth sufficient discontent to question the established system.
Ask yourself: What do I think sucks and how can I do it better?
This post was originally published at On Innovation Blog as part of my bi-weekly contributions.