Innovation almost never starts with a great idea

August, 2022

One of the biggest myths about innovation is that it starts with a brilliant idea. But nothing could be less true, says innovation expert Simone van Neerven. Meaningful innovations often begin with a good dose of wonder. And wonder often starts with observing and seeing with different eyes.

Innovation often starts with observation

In the dictionary, to observe is described as “to note or perceive something and register it as significant”. So, innovation often starts with an observation. One of the most famous examples is that of Isaac Newton resting beneath an apple tree when an apple fell and struck him on top of his head. This made him wonder why apples always fall downward. While we’re not sure if he really was sitting under that apple tree, we do know that his observation of falling apples led him to develop his law of universal gravitation.

And there are many more examples.

The origin of TikTok 

Alex Zhu, a Chinese tech entrepreneur, was still reeling from his failed adventure to launch an app where people could create short videos and learn from each other. Most people didn’t seem to need that at all.

While sitting on a train in Silicon Valley, a group of teenagers sat accros him. He became fascinated by how these teenagers used their cell phones. He saw that they were listening to music half of their time, and the other half were making videos and selfies which they then showed to each other. He thought that an app that would combine these elements might be a success. This was the start of Musical.ly which later became TikTok.

Four ways to observe better

But doesn’t observation just happen by default? When my eyes are open, I observe, right? But there is an essential difference between looking and observing. Seeing is passive while observation is active. When you observe, you assume a heightened state of consciousness or wakefulness – you look at everything without explicitly looking for anything.

There are four simple ways that will help you to become better at discovering opportunities for innovation:

#1  Don’t take anything for granted

Sometimes we are so used to doing things a certain way that we don’t even perceive them as inconvenient or annoying anymore. This is exactly where a lot of potential for innovation lies.

Almost unthinkable nowadays, but years ago telephones were wired so they were in a fixed place in homes. To record voicemails, you had to have a separate device called an answering machine. When the first mobile phones were introduced, many people were extremely skeptical about its usefulness. Today, we feel anxious if we are separate from our mobiles for just a couple of minutes.

#2  Look for frictions and frustrations

Inconveniences such as having to wait a long time or not understanding how a product or service works, are clear signs that something is wrong. And they’re often easy to spot, too, if you just look around you.

In the 1960s, toothbrushes for children used to be made like mini versions of adult toothbrushes. The handles were just as thin, yet shorter. While brushing their teeth, kids dropped these mini toothbrushes all the time. It turned out that children don’t have the same dexterity and grip as adults do. Oral-B spotted this and was the first to introduce a special toothbrush for children with a thicker handle.

#3  Find workarounds

People are super creative and often find solutions to everyday problems. Usually these are temporary solutions and therefore a good source of inspiration for innovation.

A classic example is the ketchup bottle. To get the last bit out of the bottle, people put it upside down in the cupboard. In 1991, this observation led to the design of the ‘upside down’ ketchup bottle, which was later also embraced by shampoo and toothpaste manufacturers, among others.

#4  Learn from other unrelated areas

Solutions are around every corner, but you have to have a very open mind as they often lie outside your own radius. In addition, it also requires imagination to see how a solution can be applied in a different way.

In 1970, when Bernard Sadow, a senior manager at the US Luggage company, went on a family vacation. When returning home and as he lugged two heavy suitcases through an airport, he got a key insight. While waiting at customs, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid. That gave him the idea how easy it would be to have wheels under his own heavy suitcases.

Do you want to be a better innovator? Then learn to observe

There are many things which look usual on the surface but have some hidden opportunities behind them. Opening your eyes to observe even the seemingly normal things, might lead you to the next breakthrough. For that, you have to have an open mind, like Isaac Newton watching an apple fall downwards and Alex Zhu carefully observing teenagers in a train.

This article has been translated from its original version, which was originally published in Dutch on MT/SPROUT in August, 2022.

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