Seeing the forest for the trees, but not missing those trees keys big innovation.
Our highly interconnected world mandates that we pay attention to everything around us. We all need to make decisions not simply based upon one step up or down in a supply chain but rather decide based upon truly understanding the entire relationship map across many disciplines to see the context of where we fit and how we can make a difference. Far to many, even in today’s incredibly data driven world, simply do not look at the world with a truly holistic view.
The opportunities generated by gained insights simply amaze when one takes in the forest but dives often for those indicative trees. That’s where big data, rigorous tools, and simple processes together keen observation can drive persistent, profitable business transformation and innovation. The key realization centers upon how one can enable either the business customer’s customers and then their customers and or the ultimate consumers and their families, friends and other key relationships and dreams. Take two, three or more steps around that value chain then take the big one back to your business. See where you fit. Do this all of the time, continuously. That’s what we mean by the Innovation Lifestyle.
Notice all the articles recently on innovation pathways? While creative, most do not truly take in the bigger holistic picture. They get lost in the moment their product plays in versus the deeper effect, the butterfly effect. I’m not here to point out embarrassments, so let’s leave it at that.
On the flip side, you have Nike who simply and effectively drives home decade after decade that if you use their technology driven products, you will be a successful athlete with hard work and determination. Very well done, $25 billion plus effective but then they and their competition still missed a very big opportunity. They were all not looking truly holistically at the big picture. Training was a sweaty, messy thing and no one liked and that no one really truly solved.
Under Armor changes everything by realizing that it’s a bit of science coupled with holistic insight that can truly transform the training and then the performance on the field. As a University of Maryland fullback, Kevin Plank got tired of the sweat-soaked T-shirts under his jersey, but he noticed that his compression shorts stayed dry during play and workouts. This inspired Plank’s first T-shirts using moisture-wicking synthetic fabric in the shorts. Under Armour went after not just overt branding with athletes but by also using a very simple scientific approach to athletic wear that truly could help performance and comfort. It was hard, but single man took on the Nikes and won with a holistic, contexted vision that did not rely upon fancy analytics, big data or some overly process driven innovation model. On the contrary, Kevin, based on an emerging lifetime of experience, keenly noticed the big win that no one else did, even with all of their big consulting firms helping them. Plank looked at the big picture throughout athletics rather than overly focusing on the minor trends. His company now exceeds $3 billion.
A great, real life example from my life was in the supposedly mature, boring world of woodworking. Same wood, same paints, same glues for 50, 100 years. We had a firm approach emerging Sirrus, then Bioformix, with a problem. Their superglue from a third party contractor was failing, they were to be thrown out of a big box retailer and did not know what to do.
While we had some ideas, we asked them why anyone wanted instant glue in complicated woodworking? It’s just a product extension they said with good margins that some woodworkers use. We asked why work on this if not’s a major product? What do the wood workers, both consumer and industrial, really want?
Their reply – they want a combination of the open time of white glue with a super glue faster cure, not instant, with no water that accelerates product completion. Then you could assemble, sand, and finish in minutes to hours, not days to weeks. We asked for consumer, contractor and manufacturer’s data and feedback but it never came. We decided to do it on our own. Not with big data, not with some giant analyze to death process but with a few simple what must be true questions to get at abstract specifications. In talking with all three types of consumers over only a few weeks, we found some simple, powerful insights:
Water in glue was bad:
- It slowed everything down dramatically by hours to days per assembly
- The wood would swell from the glue and need to be refinished or machined
- To overcome delays, nails and pins would be used but now created defects
- Many beautiful oily woods could not be easily used – water and oil don’t mix
- Bonding wood to other substrates was usually impossible, like for plastics
Instant bonding was bad too:
- Get wrong, the product is destroyed.
- The superglue sold was generally very brittle causing consumer use failures
- Long joints or complex assemblies were literally impossible.
- Super glue smelled bad and was irritating.
We then took those basic insights and sought to see the impact if they were solved. We went through the entire spider web value chain realizing time, quality, materials and finish dominated costs in this business. We engaged the whole value chain, from suppliers to cabinet and furniture builders through to DIY’ers and even HGTV and Fine Woodworking.
The real impact we could make – making woodworking far simpler. If no clamps or few were needed, almost anyone could assemble things. If there were no nails, parts could be prefinished. If the assembly was at full strength in minutes, a project could be done in minutes with no little screws, no screw drivers, no saws, no drills – just a rubber mallet. Well, we just exploded the potential DIY market for projects, for furniture – for entire classes of products never considered before. HGTV could show company’s products being assembled in real time within a 30-minute show or less. More viewers means more engagement, more ad revenue, more show sponsorship. Magazines get more subscribers. New retailers emerge – Amazon anyone? Cabinets delivered via Home Depot in a week, not two months plus? It goes on and on.
The answer? Supposedly bad super glue – slow super glue – was considered a failure in most laboratories. Our chemists realized that we could turn those failures into a product. While technically not that simple, a product that the giants in the industry had in their hands the whole time was developed by a few chemists at a small startup who used simple conversation and garnered insight to find the big win, just like Kevin Plank did. No big data, no six month discovery project for $500,000 or more, no overly rigorous innovation process. Instead, we used rigorous analytical tools and some common sense within the parameters of seeking and clearly defining the underlying, dominant need and it’s what must be trues. WE defined the product in the abstract and then sought the solution.
Had we simply looked at this as a technical challenge to just fix the glue, the award winning opportunity would have been missed. Had we just looked at this as a supplier issue, the award winning opportunity would have been missed. Had we just looked at this at how to make better glue, the impact and thus value would have been missed.