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The Art of Eureka! Shopping: 12 Ways to Find Innovative, Business-Boosting Ideas Outside Your Company

By Alexander Hiam

According to a recent survey study from The Conference Board, U.S. employers rank creativity and innovation as two of the top challenges for todays CEOs. Companies are hampered by their inability to see and think beyond the parameters of their own world views. They find themselves in a rut caused by the fact that the thinking that got them to where they are cant seem to get them beyond it.

Whatever the type and size of your business, you can be sure of finding more eureka-worthy innovations outside it than within it. Some have been turned into successes already; others are waiting for some brave soul to develop them. Your job is to go find them.

And dont limit yourself to your own industry or sector. As big as it may be, its still far, far smaller than the entire universe of possible ideas. To be a truly great innovator, you will have to do a little window shopping and sometimes youll have to look in windows you never even considered looking in before.

Mattel Inc. is the perfect example of a company that has looked outside its down doors for innovative ideas that helped improve its business. The company regularly gets ideas from the electronics, plastics and entertainment industries. A new Barbie doll, for example, has to be produced by using plastics technology from the wide world of industry, not from traditional toy making.

Following are a few ideas for turning your thinking around stepping outside and looking in a few windows to see what others are doing.

Visit the wrong trade shows. The most exciting innovations often come from visits to trade shows that are far removed from your industry. A bookstore owner, for example, might do well to attend a consumer electronics trade show, because books are having to share attention with electronic media. What ideas might you get as a bookstore manager when you look to the consumer electronics industry for inspiration?

  • For each best-selling print book purchased in the store, offer an MP3 file of the audiobook for free.
  • Link large-screen computer terminals to online book previews so that shoppers can look at books even if they arent in the store and then special order them for pickup the following day.
  • Offer titles in e-book format as an option to traditional bound books, and rent or lend an electronic book reader with each purchase of an e-book.

These initial ideas illustrate the point that a bookstore ought not to exist in isolation from the world of electronics. Instead, it could be cross-fertilizing to offer innovations in the way it does business and the way its customers interact with books and authors. A few days at a major electronics or entertainment industry trade show would stimulate the imagination of any bookstore manager and produce dozes of these sorts of ideas.

Expand your circle. Keep your ear to the ground for exciting ideas that you can apply in your business. How do you tap into fresh thinking from outside the boundaries of your business? One good way is to make a habit of talking to people who are outside your normal line of work. Whats new in brain surgery, landscaping, recreational boat sales and library management? You probably have no idea, but new ideas crop up in each of those fields, and those ideas just might translate into business for you. To find out, you could do the following:

  • Talk to people who work in completely different fields from yours about the latest trends and challenges in their fields.
  • Read trade magazines, professional journals and blogs from other peoples fields and industries.
  • Check the business news for reports of innovative behaviors in other fields.

The vast majority of people lives and works beyond your neighborhood, profession and industry. By focusing outward and asking questions, you open yourself to a broad flow of creative thinking.

Cross-train” whenever you can. A characteristic of successful entrepreneurs is that they often have experience in more than one field or profession. Take someone who started out selling insurance, then got a degree in nursing and worked in a medical center and now runs an innovative consulting company specializing in helping companies find less expensive health care plans for their employees. This persons mixed work background made her especially well-suited to being an innovator in that field.

Likewise, a finance person who gets a chance to work on a marketing team for a new financial product launch might be exposed to marketing and sales for the first time. Through that experience, he would gain insight into how consumers view their personal finances, which might lead him to propose a successful new line of investment products.

There are many great ways to kick off your cross-training efforts. Take a class in an unfamiliar field. Use any chance you have to work on a team thats outside your comfort zone. Shadow someone in a different department at your company for a day or two. Or start by just picking up a book that explores your field of interest. The important thing is that you proactively look for opportunities to get some experience or training outside your profession.

Study upstarts and start-ups. The dynamic new businesses in any industry are where much of the innovation takes place. Usually, these businesses are ignored for a few years or more, until some of them gain enough market share to scare the established firms and command attention.

You can and should study upstarts before they become widely known, and even before they become successful, because some of the best innovations come from these fresh, new businesses. These companies represent the future of your industry.

Ask job candidates for their advice. Every job interview should include the question, Can you think of something we could be doing better or smarter than we are?” In other words, while a candidate is trying to impress you and convince you that hes a great job candidate, he could suggest some ways that you could improve your business. If you ask, youll certainly get some interesting answers. Further, if you really like an idea, you just might decide to hire the candidate who offered it and assign him the task of helping to implement his suggestion.

Make sure that all of your new hires have a proven history of contributing valuable ideas and also have demonstrated an ability to think on their feet during the interview process. Describe a current problem or challenge during the interview and ask for suggestion. Youll soon know whether youre talking to an original thinker and problem solver.

Research what other companies are boasting about. Businesses that introduce a new product, reorganize to improve efficiencies or open a new line of business tend to publicize what theyve done.

Browse business press releases to find out what innovations companies are boasting about, and see whether any of their accomplishments give you good ideas that you could implement in your own workplace. To look for interesting announcements, visit ThomasNet News, PR Newswire, PRZOOM or Business Wire.

Be positive before youre negative dont dismiss ideas out of hand. It takes open-minded imagination to find a way to apply innovative ideas in a business. Ideas dont come ready-made for implementation; theyre just starting points for your innovative thinking. Therefore, dont approach them with a critical eye.

Look at the pros and cons of every idea. Notice that the phrase pros and cons starts with pros the benefits or good points of an idea and considers the cons the negatives after noting the positives. You could quickly dismiss every idea that you come across, because all ideas have some issues or barriers that youd need to overcome to make them work in your business. But if the benefits are substantial, it may be worth the time and trouble to adapt an idea to your own purposes.

Dont force it. Even with a rich imagination, youll find that plenty of ideas arent a good fit for your business. As you evaluate ideas, check them for viability meaning that the pros outweigh the cons and then do a second level of checking to see whether the idea matches your capabilities. If not, keep looking.

I can imagine a lot of great new business opportunities, because I do so much brainstorming with clients that its just second nature to come up with ideas for innovations. I pass right by most of those ideas, however, because my own business portfolio doesnt include the right competencies. I dont do any large-scale manufacturing, for example, so a manufactured product probably isnt a good match for my business. Nor do I do anything involving electronics.

Also, although my companies are competent in distribution and sales, they dont sell directly to consumers only business to business. If I get an idea for a cool, new consumer product that somebody should manufacture and sell, I pass the idea on to an appropriate client. I know my limitations.

Choose innovative suppliers. Companies usually select suppliers based on a mix of service and pricing. Thats fine in the here and now, but success requires forward thinking. Add a third criterion innovativeness to the mix, and youll select suppliers who can help you succeed both now and in the future.

Its easy to compare suppliers prices, and service quality also is fairly easy to compare when you have a track record to go on. How do you know, however, which suppliers are innovating and which ones arent? Here are a few key indicators to look for in a supplier:

  • The overall look and feel of the business (including the people, printed materials, facilities and websites) are modern and energetic. The business doesnt look old-fashioned or set in its ways.
  • The people talk about new products and services frequently and make a point of sharing their latest thinking. They dont rest on the laurels of a static product line and past success.
  • The business embraces new technologies for its own processes and operations. You find ample evidence of enthusiasm for progress and willingness to change.
  • The people ask questions about your business; they seem to be eager to learn and to share their own learning. Avoid arms-length suppliers who are interested only in writing your order.

Suppliers who meet all of the above criteria are innovative, and theyre likely to help you stay on the leading edge of your own industry.

Pick your suppliers brains (a.k.a., ask for free consulting). When youve shifted over to suppliers that are innovative, price-competitive and good at servicing your orders, youre ready to invite them to help you improve your business.

This strategy is very powerful. Basically, you want to get into constructive discussions with your suppliers by asking them what they think you could be doing to improve your business. The suggestions that suppliers come up with often involve using their products or services, of course, so you need to keep in mind their natural bias to make a sale.

Often, however, their ideas have merit, and theres nothing wrong with, say, switching to a different product if that switch benefits your business and your customers. Be open to ideas and proposals from innovative suppliers, and youll have a virtual R&D department thats eager to help you innovate.

Bring your suppliers together to brainstorm. Its rare, but remarkably effective, to bring multiple suppliers together and pick their brains for improvements and innovations.

The reason its good to get two or more of your suppliers in your office at the same time is that they may come up with a really clever way to combine their ideas, products or services. Call in your suppliers at least once a year to brainstorm ways to improve your business. Gathering half a dozen suppliers, each from a different industry, will ensure a rich mix of perspectives and possible cross-fertilization of ideas.

Align yourself with your industrys experts. In many industries and professions, associations or other organizations publish standards and research on best practices. These organizations can be sources of innovations that help improve the quality of your services or products.

For example, the Sunnyside Child Care Center at Smith, located in Northhampton, Mass., is a small organization without a major budget for research and development. It taps into the expertise of the National Association for the Education of Young Children by maintaining accreditation with that organization, which means that its staff and practices are subject to expert review and must adhere to high standards of practice. It also purchases an advanced report writing system from Pearson Education Inc., which provides rich feedback about each childs development to the teachers and parents.

Parents feel confident that their children are getting a great start because of the advanced methods and tools used. Not all day care centers have the resources to do their own research on early childhood development, of course, but if a center shops around for expertise and brings in leading practices, it can gain a reputation for being innovative and expert and so can yours!

In any field or profession, fewer than 10 percent of people stay up-to-date with leading-edge thinking and practices. By staying in touch with your industrys experts, you can be on the leading edge with those who implement new practices and approaches. Make sure that you belong to and participate in your industrys trade associations and your professions membership societies. Attend workshops led by innovators, read experts blogs and make a point of knowing what the new ideas and practices are.

Whether youre a retailer, wholesaler or some other form of businessperson, you definitely need to broaden your view of innovation to include good ideas, inventions and designs from beyond your own four walls. The times we live in demand it. Until you do, your company will be a step behind its competition.

Alexander Hiam is a speaker, consultant, educator and the author of

Business Innovation for Dummies

. His work has included business strategy, high-tech entrepreneurship, new product development, branding, naming negotiating and consulting often in the role of innovator or generator of new ideas and approaches. Hes also taught thousands of managers innovation and creativity skills through his workshops and idea-generation retreats, as well as through his authorship of study materials.


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