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One Size Does Not Fit All

For business innovation, embrace contrarian views and listen to and observe your customers

Stephen Shapiro

Every company knows the importance of innovation, but few know how to make it a reality. For 25 years, Stephen Shapiro has helped hundreds of Fortune 500 corporations and countless individuals innovate. He believes innovation happens only when divergent points of view are brought together in an efficient manner. The following discussion reveals some of his guiding principles.
 

Q: Stephen, what would be your one piece of advice for a small-business owner or entrepreneur who wants to be more innovative?

A: Ignore all advice. They may think otherwise, but most people have no clue about the real reason they are successful. More important, even if they did know, what worked for them may not be appropriate for you. Unless you know the context for a given practice, you won’t know whether it applies to your situation.

There’s a reason my latest book is called Best Practices Are Stupid. Everyone wants to be more like Apple, Amazon.com or 3M. But each company that tries has failed miserably. Competitors that attempt to replicate market leaders are constantly playing catch-up. Besides, every business has its unique culture, financial situation, industry position, brand and more. Although it is useful to learn from others, don’t replicate what they do without healthy skepticism and rational thinking. When listening to advice, consider your situation, your needs and your aspirations, and apply only what feels right to you.

 

Q: Why do you believe expertise is the enemy of innovation?

A: Innovation requires “fresh thinking.” You need to look at challenges and opportunities from different angles. Unfortunately, when you’re an expert and know a topic well, it’s difficult to examine it from a different perspective. As a result, the best breakthroughs are often found by connecting with entirely different areas of expertise.

Airlines reduced plane turnaround times after studying Indianapolis 500 pit crews. Hospitals improved check-in processes by consulting hotels. Oil transmission companies found better ways to seal cracked pipelines once they examined the self-healing properties of capillaries. Medical device manufacturers better understood how angioplasty balloons expand and contract in blood vessels by analyzing automobile airbag deployment.

Experts are great at finding incremental improvements that build on past successes. Instead of their best practices, we need “next practices” for new challenges.

The issue is depth vs. breadth. Depth is useful for incremental improvements. But breadth is often needed for breakthroughs. Or as Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is having enough dots to connect.” Experts focus deeply on one dot. You’re probably an expert at your dot; you know your business better than anyone else. But that makes it difficult for you to look at your business with fresh eyes.

How can you add more breadth to your experience so you can see different perspectives? Here are three suggestions:

- Try new things. This may seem obvious, but the more experience you have, the more “dots” you have to connect. One tip: In addition to reading trade journals from your industry, read different and unrelated magazines.

- Ask, “Who else has solved a problem like this?” Consider looking outside your industry for solutions. A boat rental company, for example, developed a successful model like Netflix’s DVD subscription service.

- Connect with people who think differently. When working on a problem, bring in people from different, but related, industries. What can a dentist learn from a chiropractor? Or consider crowdsourcing and open innovation [ideas from sources outside your business] to gather ideas from a broad group of people with varied backgrounds.

 

Q: So why should you work with people who are not like you?

A: Conventional wisdom says opposites attract, but irrefutable scientific evidence proves that in relationships, opposites repel. Look at our political system: If opposites attracted, Democrats and Republicans would hug in the aisles. Simply put, we prefer to be around people who are similar to us. In business, this means we’re apt to surround ourselves with those who think and act as we do.

Working with people who are like us improves efficiency and makes relationships easier, but the commonality destroys innovation. Innovation occurs only when different and divergent points of view come together in an efficient way to create something new of value. In other words, collaborate with individuals and organizations that complement your style and address your innovation inadequacies.

To help organizations do this effectively, I developed a card-based system called Personality Poker. Here is a simplified version to help you pinpoint your style. Identify the set of words below that most resonates with you and best describes you:

A. Intellectual, knowledgeable, philosophical, logical, realistic, rational, skeptical.

B. Adventurous, spontaneous, flexible, creative, open-minded, insightful, curious.

C. Goal-oriented, driven, decisive, competitive, disciplined, organized, systematic.

D. Diplomatic, sociable, gregarious, popular, nurturing, empathetic, compassionate.

The list that best describes you is your primary innovation style (people have more than one style). A’s tend to be more data-driven and analytical, B’s like new ideas and experiences, C’s like to plan the work and work the plan, and D’s are into people and relationships.

But who you are NOT is more important than who you are. Look at the word lists again: Which are the opposite of your style? Which are traits you don’t possess? You may find that people having those attributes can rub you the wrong way, that their differences irritate you. But these differences can round you out, making you more successful in business and innovation.

I am creative, spontaneous and people-oriented. While heading a project years ago, I chose a co-leader with a similar style. It was a disaster. We never accomplished anything because we were too enamored with having a good time and doing cool things. Learning from that misstep, on my next project I selected a co-leader who was an organized, results-oriented planner—my opposite. At first I found him to be annoying, but what we ultimately created exceeded all expectations.

The next time you tackle a complex problem, seek someone who is different, someone who has attributes that are the opposite of yours. Appreciate their contribution. This will be the key to your success.

 

Q: Besides complementary differences, what should someone look for in partnerships?

A: Consider which relationships will create the most leverage, which goes way beyond doing more with less. It is a mindset for generating disproportionately large returns with a minimal investment. Which partners can help you accomplish that?

This month’s issue of SUCCESS focuses on selling. If you want to sell more, traditionally you identify your prospects, create sales and marketing materials, and then email, call or mail your potential buyers. This is a linear strategy. If you make a sale, it is one sale.

To create exponential growth, think differently. Most businesses operate as though they are B2B (selling to other businesses) or B2C (selling to consumers). For leverage, I treat my B2B business as a B2B2B business. Instead of trying to gain access to potential buyers directly, I build relationships with businesses that already have these connections. One partnership through the right distribution channel can lead to hundreds or thousands of sales.

And I’m not just talking about creating leverage within my sales channel. I also want partners that can develop and deliver as well as distribute. This gives me maximum leverage. For example, I’ve forged a partnership with a major training company that licenses my content. This company has an excellent distribution channel because it is positioned in nearly every major U.S. corporation. But it’s also developing, delivering and funding a completely new training program from my intellectual property. In this case, each sale puts money in my pocket without any extra effort.

Think about your business. If you are a restaurant, for example, working with Groupon or Restaurant.com is a great way to generate sales. But if you go a step further, you could find a catering business that licenses your recipes and brand. They do all the work while you get a chunk of the revenues.

I understand that with these kinds of partners, I’m choosing to forgo potential revenue—unlike business deals in which I book and deliver all of the work myself, doing 100 percent of the work and retaining 100 percent of the income, less costs.

Leverage is getting exponential results from minimal or no effort. Others can help you accomplish this. But to do so, consider following my personal mantra: “Before you can multiply, you must first learn to divide.” Before you can really grow your business, you must be willing to give others a slice of your business. When their success depends on your success, you will have built an effective partnership and an exceptional leverage point for growing your business.

 

Q: Is innovation always about creating products and services that are better and faster?

A: We are in a world of too much to do, too little time and too many distractions. Chances are your customers and employees are overwhelmed and have short attention spans. Because of this, simplifying your products, services and processes is crucial to your success.

For example, in the past, the most successful video games had superior graphics. But Nintendo changed that by developing the Wii, which was introduced in 2006. Although Wii graphics are simplistic, Wiis outsold Xbox and PlayStation combined in 2008. By simplifying the user interface and adding new peripherals, the game appealed to more than just the hardcore gamers and became accessible to anyone from 8 to 80 years old.

Many software products offer vast capabilities, yet less than 10 percent of these functions are ever used by 90 percent of their customers. This means that casual users must wade through a sea of complexity to do what they want. One reason for Apple’s success is it hid complexity from users.

To serve your customers, can you simplify what your business offers? How can you make yourself easy to do business with? When communicating, simplify your message. Businesses are notorious for using jargon and making things sound overly complicated. Prospects want you to get to the point. Keep your website simple, with few distractions and limited navigation.

Simplification is the best innovation.

 

Q: What is the No. 1 cause of innovation failure?

A: Studies find that the main cause of innovation failure is an inability to meet customer needs. Detroit car manufacturers learned this the hard way. For years they ignored the needs of customers, believing they knew best. And even when U.S. automakers thought they were listening, they ignored what they didn’t believe to be true.

Our brains are designed to hear what we want to hear, not what is really being said. Our biases and beliefs cloud our ability to truly listen.

Although you gladly accept positive feedback, are you equally happy to receive criticism? If you see negative Yelp reviews, do you assume customers were wrong? Or do you embrace their feedback as a contribution? What about lost customers? Are you willing to hear and proactively seek their negative perspectives?

Biases not only affect what you listen to but to whom. I’ve seen executives dismiss brilliant ideas proposed by employees. But when consultants said the same things, they were considered geniuses.

Even if you are a master at listening, you must remember that customers don’t always know what they really want. So it’s vital to take things a step further. Leave your desk and observe your customers to discover some of their unarticulated needs and wants. Whirlpool developed pedestals and storage units for its Duet washers and dryers by observing a woman who placed her dryer on cinderblocks so she could load and unload without bending. A drugstore learned the difficulty in opening its prescription bottles by watching a woman use a hacksaw to cut into one. Customers never provided this feedback during focus-group sessions and surveys.

 

Bottom line: Innovation is about connecting the dots: applying solutions from different industries, partnering with people who think differently, building relationships that give you greater leverage, and connecting with customer needs. Only by looking at the world differently will you be able to stay ahead of your competition.

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