One question to help you innovate how you innovate

break out of your comfort zone to innovateHow do you innovate how you innovate? Easy, stop doing what worked before and start looking for insights outside the mainstream.


Because I haven’t found any, and conduct them myself, a couple of weeks ago I wrote a short guide on how to conduct outside industry benchmarks for innovation. Part of this process is to consistently step out of your domain and learn how others approach similar business challenges; a few years ago I wrote about my experience at Disney Animation Studios.

The point of benchmarking outside your industry is to overcome the human tendency of letting what we know limit what we can imagine; to look outside your domain for inspiration.

A very simple example of how this has worked for past companies is the Ford assembly line. Apparently Mr. Ford got the idea for the assembly line while visiting a slaughter house and observing how one worker passed the exposed carcass to the next worker for the next round of tasks, and on and on. The rest is history.

Same goes for other innovations that we now take for granted…

Because I’m always on the hunt for ideas to steal, I found a 7 year old article on the Wall Street Journal about how Lexus and Umpqua bank turned to hotels for ideas about their service challenges. The article recounts how both companies sent their employees to the Ritz Carlton for in depth training sessions about how the Ritz does customer service and enhances the customer experience.

Here are some highlights:

To make the car dealership he manages more inviting, Bill Morton recently added valet parking, fresh flowers in the showroom and a marble floor in the bathroom. Customers picking up their serviced vehicles now find bottled water and Hershey’s chocolate kisses in the cupholders “like when you go to a fine hotel and they turn down your bed at night,” Mr. Morton says.

His inspiration: the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad, Calif., where he and other Lexus dealers got a behind-the-scenes tour last year. “It really made you open your eyes as far as the future of customer service and guest engagement,” says Mr. Morton, who manages Tom Williams Lexus in Irondale, Ala.

From Umpqua Bank:

Some executives sign up their companies for the seminars because they already are customers at the luxury hotels. Ray Davis, chief executive officer of Umpqua Holdings Corp. UMPQ -0.67% and its Umpqua Bank unit, says he got the idea to send employees to training sessions after his stays at the Ritz-Carlton. At the hotel in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, a janitor stepped down from a ladder to show him the way to the restroom. At the Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park, employees at the front desk mysteriously addressed him by name upon his arrival. (Bellmen look at guests’ luggage tags and then use tiny, hidden radios to message the name to employees in the lobby and at the front desk.)

Those little things “make you stand up and go, ‘wow, these people are really good. We need to talk to them,’ ” he says.

Umpqua, a West Coast bank chain based in Portland, Ore., has sent employees to half-day training sessions taught by Ritz-Carlton employees since 2003, and tellers now place customers’ cash on black wooden trays along with a silver chocolate coin embellished with the bank’s logo.

Another approach to breaking free of the status quo is to invite outsiders to provide you another perspective. This is how you avoid me-too-ism!

What is ordinary in one domain can be extraordinary in another

The main challenge for non-innovators is breaking out of the straight jacket of expertise. Once more this became clear to me a couple of years ago when I organized a conference about The Process of Animation and brought a Disney character designer and a Director of The Simpsons to show us how that works.

As I was promoting the event, people let me know that they were not interested in attending because they were not animators, nor were they interested in animation. This was a clear sign to me that these people were stuck in “ExpertThink”, and were constantly falling into the trap of letting what they know limit what they can imagine.

The truth is we are all in the business of creativity. And animation is all about creativity, it is a process about telling stories. The people who rejected my invitation, marketers and entrepreneurs, did not see this; they couldn’t connect the dots. Same goes for a bunch of other people all over the world!

Hack yourself against me-too-ism

Because we have a tendency to run with the first thing that pops into our heads, the stuff we’ve already seen and know well, we have to counter this mindless habit. So, to look far and wide for ideas and avoid me-too-ism, you need to setup a tripwire that will stop you in your tracks before moving forward with the first idea that pops into your head. So, how can you setup a tripwire to avoid me-too-ism?

Simple, ask yourself this question: What can we learn from ___insert company___ about they way they __challenge______.

For example, what can you learn from organized crime about executing plans? Go ahead and read the article.

Bottom line: The value in searching for ideas in unrelated fields isn’t just about copying what works. It’s about changing mindsets, standards and expectations. Take the time to look far and wide for ideas that are ordinary in another domain, and could be extraordinary in yours.

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