You need only to scan the headlines to know how dramatic the changes are that influence people’s lives at home and at work. The old norms are being replaced by still uncertain ground rules. Recent research on the sources of innovation clearly indicates that the most disruptive and destructive innovations can wreak havoc on even the very best companies.13 The only effective response from leaders is to anticipate the disruptions and get ahead of the curve. For sure, they can never afford to be behind it. So where do new ideas for products, processes, and services come from?
Look Outside Your Experience
Surprisingly, researchers find that innovations come from just about anywhere.14 According to a global study of CEOs, two of the three most significant sources of innovative ideas are actually outside the organization.15 Sometimes ideas come from customers, sometimes from lead users, sometimes from suppliers, sometimes from business partners, and sometimes from the R&D labs. What this means is that leaders must always be actively looking for the fuzziest signs and intently listening to the weakest signals to anticipate the emergence of something new over the horizon. This means honing your “outsight”—the capacity to perceive external things—and helping your constituents develop that ability as well.
Studies into how the brain processes information suggest that in order to see things differently and hence creatively, you have to
bombard your brain with things it has never encountered. This kind of novelty is vital, explains neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University, because the brain, evolved for efficiency, routinely takes perceptual shortcuts to save energy. Only by forcing yourself to break free of preexisting views can you get your brain to recategorize infor- mation. Moving beyond habitual thinking patterns is the starting point to imagining truly novel alternatives.16
Because the human mind is surprisingly adroit at supporting its deep-seated ways of viewing the world while sifting out evidence to the contrary, Marie Capozzi, Renee Dye, and Amy Howe, with McKinsey & Company, suggest that the antidote is direct personal experience: “Seeing and experiencing something firsthand can shake people up in ways that abstract discussions around conference room tables can’t. It’s therefore extremely valuable to start creativity-build- ing exercises or idea generation efforts outside the office, by engi- neering personal experiences that directly confront the participants’ implicit or explicit assumptions.”17 Consider what one North Ameri- can specialty retailer did in seeking to reinvent its store format while improving the experience of its customers:
To jump-start creativity in its people, the company sent out several groups of three to four employees to experience retail concepts very different from its own. Some went to Sephora, a beauty product retailer that features more than 200 brands and a sales model that encourages associates to offer honest product advice, without a particular allegiance to any of them. Others went to the Blues Jean Bar, an intimate boutique retailer that aspires to turn the impersonal experience of digging through piles of jeans into a cozy occasion reminiscent of a night at a neighborhood pub. Still others visited a gourmet chocolate shop.
G E These experiences were transformative for the employees,
who watched, shopped, chatted with sales associates, took pictures, and later shared observations with teammates in a more formal idea generation session. By visiting the other retailers and seeing firsthand how they operated, the retailer’s employees were able to relax their strongly held views about their own company’s operations. This transformation, in turn, led them to identify new retail concepts they hadn’t thought of before, including organizing a key product by color (instead of by manufacturer) and changing the design of stores to center the shopping experience around advice from expert stylists.18
Of course, the process doesn’t have to be quite so elaborate, and it can take place right where you are today. Consider what Heidi Castagna, director of sales initiatives at Seagate Technology, did to scan the horizon.19 Heidi leveraged the resources within various subscription services supplied by her company to understand how other firms were reacting to the economic downturn. She attended workshops and meetings dedicated to sharing best-in-class sales enablement models and practices. She spoke with consultants who specialized in helping make sales organizations more efficient. From these activities, Heidi was able to actively learn what had become important to buyers and what was working well for other companies. She successfully looked beyond the “four walls” of Seagate to learn about ideas and perspectives that would have otherwise been unknown to her. By combining her experience with this outsight, she was able to determine the important core messages and meanings from these various sources in order to best understand how she and her group could be innovative and stay ahead of the competition.
Leaders like Heidi understand that innovation requires more listening and greater communication than routine work does. Suc-
cessful innovations don’t spring from the fifty-second floor of the headquarters building or the back offices of City Hall. You have to establish relationships, network, be connected, and be out and about. Changing the business-as-usual environment requires staying in touch with the world around you.