Not all innovations are created equal. Some, like the invention of the silicon chip or social networking, are “quantum leaps” that spawn legions of new products. Others are “small steps”— they lead to claims of being “new and improved” and tend to provide only temporary market advantage.
When the subject is product or service innovation, we always hear “listen to your customer,” which is usually interpreted as meaning some combination of market research or “listening” to communities on social networks or soliciting customer suggestions.
That’s fine if what you want is a “little step,” but rarely will it lead to a “quantum leap.” There was a fellow at the Massachusettss Institute of Technology named Von Hippel who specialized in the study of innovation. He found that while customers can tell you how to improve an existing technology, they are not, as a rule, the catalyst for new technologies, which grow out of research and development (R&D). In the context of meetings and incentive travel, that R&D department is likely you.
What’s your innovation quotient?
Most event planners/managers have left-brain tendencies: they manage the details because that is the minimum expected by clients. That doesn’t mean they are incapable of the more creative, right-brain thought required to develop innovative programmes and formats. However, since most people are dominant in either their right- or left-brain tendencies, it does mean that not everyone has the capacity to be “an innovative R&D equivalent.”
There was a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review that identified five characteristics of entrepreneurs who were successful at developing innovative products and services. Ask yourself whether you demonstrate these at your strategy sessions or client meetings.
Association: Innovators are able to connect seemingly unrelated problems, product or ideas from different fields. If this is going to become something more than random, you need a starting point. To that end, break down your value chain into different classes of activity: for example, “audience accreditation,” “speaker identification” and “materials distribution.” As you read of others’ experiences, new ideas or new technologies, get into the habit of questioning, on a value, stage-by-stage basis, whether the subject could have relevance to how you see yourself creating value for clients.
Questioning: Once you have an association in mind, ask the questions, “Why do it?” and “Why not do it?” and “What if we did it?” While most people intuitively compare pros/cons, there is no way to assess whether the pros outweigh the cons without knowing the ultimate benefit of success. (You can find something easy and cheap to do, but why bother, if it won’t lead to a significant result).
Observing: While customers may not be able to articulate the innovations they want, observing their behaviour is a key source of innovative ideas. Again, look at each stage in the value chain and then ask the question, “What do people hate about how this is done?” and “Are we asking customers to do essentially the same task twice?”
Experimenting: This doesn’t mean scientific experiments, although it could. It really means putting yourself in a position to learn. Starbucks founder Howard Shultz went to Italy to tour coffee bars there. Disney has an entire “university” on managing customer experience. Again, start with the value chain and for each stage ask, “Who is best at this, regardless of industry or geography?”
Networking: This is not your normal networking for contacts. It does mean stepping outside your network to discuss your ideas and learn from people in other fields. For example, look to universities to see how they manage registration of 20,000 people in one day or coupon agencies to see how they cost-effectively distribute masses of materials.