I’ve been researching an industry (coin operated vending) in preparation for a speech I’m giving. I make an effort to tailor my keynotes, as much as is practical, in order to deliver more specific value to my audiences.
In doing my research some obvious (to me) opportunity areas for innovation have become apparent.
Strangely, when I bring up these interesting and potentially lucrative market adjacencies most of the folks I talk to in the industry reject these potential opportunities with barely a pause in the conversation.
It’s true that “I don’t know” why these innovation possibilities can’t work. My argument is, for innovation, that can be a real strength. I’m not “in the box” of the people I’m interviewing, I simply don’t know the edges that can’t be stepped over. So I step over them without delay.
There is immense value in an outsider’s perspective in innovation because they don’t have blinders on. Outsiders can make new connections, and will question the dogma within a certain industries’ walled garden.
When I follow up with questions about why something can’t work, what I hear is not that the ideas couldn’t be done. The objections seem to be that they would be quite difficult. Of course they would! Innovation within an established industry is never easy. Breakthrough’s require all sorts of things. Pick the items from this list: new infrastructure, massive investment, unfamiliar marketing approaches, development of new technology, dealing with upset people — sometimes all the above. Yes, this is hard work. And, making these efforts is where the gold is to be found.
I’m reminded of the story of Louis Gerstner and his brilliant efforts to refashion IBM in the 90’s. IBM at the time was suffering catastrophic losses from a massive change in computing due to the PC and the Internet. Louis came into the company as an outsider — his successful experiences with American Express and RJR Nabsisco were not the classic preparation to be head of the leading computer company in the world. In spite of this, he quickly made some non-intuitive choices that turned out to be “all the right moves.” He totally went against the grain of the common wisdom within the insular IBM culture. He’s now widely credited with turning around IBM’s fortunes, read his book Who Says Elephant’s Can’t Dance? for the rest of the story.
Now, it’s not any outsider who can make a big difference. An outsider who is likely to bring wisdom to your industry is someone who is experienced and well read across a wide set of knowledge domains. You’re looking for what Buckminster Fuller termed a “comprehensivist”. Also, I think it’s important the outsider knows another specific industry very well. This broad context brings perspective and allows the outsider to see connections those with a more limited perspective don’t have. So, look for a person with both broad and deep knowledge. Curiosity is also essential. And, it needs said, outsiders are often wrong, but here’s the thing — if you thoughtlessly dismiss their ideas you just might be closing the door to a big opportunity.
If you’re looking to innovate — look to outsiders and listen with care. Then roll up your sleeves and do the hard work necessary to make a fresh perspective real.