Innovation is the key to a successful future. The answers to many problems have not been invented yet. I have high hopes for the future of humanity because when it’s time to sink or swim, we carve out a tree and sit in it. When our backs are against the wall, we MacGyver our way out. To be able to innovate successfully, there are a few tools that can be added to our kits.
The first tool is to be able to look at something as if it was for your first time. Remove yourself from any bias that you’ve built up over the years, and objectively look at it and experience it. Does it really solve the problem it was designed to solve? What’s missing? Next time you come home, open the front door as if was your first time visiting that house. You’ll instantly notice that a few things are out of place. The end table sticks out too far, the coat rack is cluttered, the couch is too close to the coffee table, etc. I recently used this experiment and had to redesign my entire room layout. After living in that new arrangement for a few weeks, I tried it again and now am in the middle of my second rearrangement. So be prepared.
Overall, approaching an everyday scenario, product, or service as if you’ve never experienced or used it before is a great tool for detecting problems. First impressions matter when you have an open mind. After we know what the problems are, we can go about solving them.
Want to innovate and solve those problems? Associate. Find the link between two objects and what problem they could solve together if parts were taken from each to create something anew. Association is the strongest trait required to properly innovate. It is nearly impossible to create anything from scratch – to create something completely new. It just doesn’t happen. That is not how the human brain works. Everything we create that is “new” is really just pieces of various products melded together. A new iteration of the previous generation.
So we know how to detect the problems and now we know how to solve them. Let’s see it in action. Tata Motors, India’s largest automobile manufacturer, faced an interesting problem in the mid 2000’s. They originally started out in 1945 as a locomotive manufacturer, released their first commercial vehicle in 1954, and entered the passenger vehicle market in 1991. Obviously this company knows how to grow and adapt. Their passenger vehicles were a success as they quickly became India’s largest automobile manufacturer. However, in the mid 2000’s, sales were not where they wanted.
They had to re-evaluate the market. They had to look at Indian transportation as if they were looking at it for the first time. What did they see? Not that many cars on the road. Instead, they saw motorbike after motorbike crowded in narrow streets. Unless Tata Motors wanted to transform their business model again to include motorbikes, innovation was necessary. So why were Indians driving these motorbikes instead of cars? Two reasons. First, they are compact and easy to navigate in the narrow streets. Second, they are cheap.
Now Tata Motors knows the problem and the key elements required to solve it. Cheap and compact – qualities found in the motorbike. While still being safe and have some storage capabilities – qualities found in a car. With this new lens and association between motorbikes and passenger vehicles, Tata Motors released the cheapest, most compact car to ever hit the market: Tata Nano. It sold off the lot for $1,500. Now to get it down to this price they had to cut some corners on safety, making it not street legal in the US. But compared to a motorbike, it was much safer, had room for 3 passenger besides the driver, and had a small storage area in the back. It was the best of both worlds and exactly what India needed for a car. In the end, it sold well but did not live up to expectations. It was expected to revolutionize transportation in India. But with consumer feedback, Tata Motors learned that it was still too expensive given the cost of a used motorbike. With that said, the expectations were high. It still sold over 70,000 units per year for the two years following its release. I’d call that a success.
What was the first paper airplane called? Some monk at some point in history must have folded a piece of paper and made it fly. Long before the first airplane was invented. That must have been the first airplane right? How long did it take humanity to invent an airplane after the first paper airplane was invented? Had to be hundreds, if not thousands of years. The more unlikely story is that the paper airplane went nameless for a millennium until the first real airplane was invented. Then they had an ah-ha moment and thought of slapping paper in front of the name.
What a strange line of questions. That’s what happened when I looked at paper airplanes for the first time again. I guess the lesson there is it doesn’t matter what or who is first, the power of the name goes to the most important. When we ask for a tissue, most of us say Kleenex. That’s the name of a company, but we have designated that name to encompass that entire product. It’s an eponym. Same can be said for Q-Tips, chapstick, and Xerox, among many others. If your name is that powerful, you own the industry. Tesla might be doing that now with the electric car industry.