Innovation almost never starts with a great idea

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

Innovation often starts with observation

In the dictionary, to observe is described as “to note or perceive something and register it as significant”. And thus, 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. While sitting on a train in Silicon Valley, a group of teenagers sat across from him. He became fascinated by how these teenagers used their mobiles. He saw that half of the time they were listening to music. The rest of the time, the teenagers were making videos and selfies and showed them to each other. He got the idea that an app that would combine these elements could 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 a better observer and discover opportunities for innovation more quicker:

#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, which was called an answering machine. When the first mobile phones were introduced, many people were extremely skeptical about their usefulness. Today, we feel anxious if we are separated 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, Bernard Sadow, a senior manager at the US Luggage company, went on a family vacation. When returning home, lugging two heavy suitcases through the airport, he got a key insight. While waiting at customs, he observed a worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid. He wondered how easy it would be if he would have wheels under his heavy suitcases. That’s how the wheels ended up on our suitcases. 

Learn to observe if you want to be a good innovator

Many things that look normal have hidden opportunities. Observing seemingly normal things can lead to the next breakthrough. But for that, you have to have an open mind, like Isaac Newton watching an apple fall downwards and Alex Zhu carefully observing teenagers on a train.

This article was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout, the most popular business and management platform in the Netherlands.

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