Have you ever had an unsettling dream where you were surrounded by walls? You know that you have to escape but no matter which way you turn, you’re met with another towering brick wall. In desperation, you consider running full speed into one of the walls, hoping to break through.
Sometimes creating innovative concepts can feel like trying to run through a brick wall. The wall surrounds what’s already familiar to you, but in order to reach further, you have get break through it. But it’s difficult, involves a lot of strategy, and honestly, you can only guess at what’s behind it.
Image courtesy of Ray Sadler via Flickr.
Innovation and creativity are infamous for breaking boundaries and establishing new norms. However, what often can be forgotten in the midst of the fuss is that innovation and creativity are relative to the current norms. In order to innovate, business leaders need to travel along the fringe of the status quo and prospect for new frontiers.
1. Know the rules.
Innovation requires you to know the rules of your trade before you can push the limits. For centuries, artists sought to make their paintings as realistic and accurate as possible. These artists clearly understood these firmly established standards for years until eventually these “rules” were broken.
Seth Godin wrote that “real creativity comes in navigating…rules in a way that creates a breakthrough.” This sort of behavior opens doors for new heights of creativity within their distinctive fields. In other words:by understanding commonly held beliefs, innovators know where most people constrain themselves. Practically, this means you scout out the playing field before you move forward. This practice highlights opportunities to push the boundaries.
2. Find the boundaries
Boundaries constantly shift relative to time, culture, and expertise. Something in a different career that might impress you, might be rather unexciting to someone else. Simple example:your grandma is super impressed with your tech skills. But for you, it’s not impressive; it’s normal and everyday, and all your friends are similarly skilled. The only reason grandma is so impressed is because her technological boundaries are more constrained than yours.
In order to innovate, you have to work along the boundaries while realizing the boundaries vary for different people and are ever expanding. In order to keep on innovating, you have to continually push the boundaries that are shared by your competitors and target customers. Godin notes, “Being creative means immediately going to the place the last person left off.” This requires you to pinpoint the current norms of society, and rush to those edges to push them further.
Zappos is a great example of understanding the boundaries. While many companies value customer service (explored territory), there is usually a limitation (boundary) to their amiableness. Zappos completely forged past this border by making their entire focus about the customer. By focusing on providing an incomparable customer experience, Zappos became a $1 billion company in less than ten years because its customers returned:again and again.
3. Break the rules
Picasso knew the rules. He studied as a classical painter for years before he broke the norms and started exploring the realms of cubism and surrealism. Monet knew the boundaries. He just chose to ignore them and made the push into impressionism. History wouldn’t have remembered either of these artists as vividly if they didn’t have the courage to innovate within their field.
Image courtesy of Kick Photo via Flickr
At the B2C level, Nike is an interesting example of innovation. Having won multiple awards for their excellence in innovation, a lot of their strength is not necessarily in their products (though that’s definitely a huge contributor). Nike has done an amazing job building an athletic empire of loyalty among their customers. They have created a solid foundation of brand loyalty, to the point that their customers are proud to adorn the Nike symbol. Why? Because Nike realizes that loyalty is built around how it connects to its customers.
Image courtesy of Phobus via Flickr
On the B2B front, tech company Fusion-io broke the rules by pushing the fringe of marketing and seeking out their customers’ hearts–not just their minds. Instead of just shouting out the benefits of using their memory storage platform, Trip Hunter–Fusion-io’s VP of Corporate Marketing–decided to climb to the top (literally) by hiking Mount Everest with memory champion Nelson Dellis to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. This not only raised a lot of attention for Fusion-io, but as Dellis mentioned on the expedition’s micro-site, “I work with Fusion-io because we share a commitment to advancing the cause of memory. We also share a common drive to challenge ourselves to do things others haven’t. It’s not your usual kind of partnership, but maybe that’s why it works so well.”
In the same way, businesses need to break some of the rules within their fields in order to innovate. As I’ve written before, this is where it gets scary because you’re pushing through new frontier. You’ve only heard rumors of this territory–most of the time not happy things either. There is very little research on this new frontier, and failure appears more imminent than success. Yet the best innovations came from those who are willing to risk the consequences and become pioneers. No company brought innovative concepts to the table and climbed to the top by playing it safe, and neither will you.