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A Google sign inside Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., June 18, 2007. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
A Google sign inside Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., June 18, 2007. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

Guest column

Why it’s time to build your own Google lab of wild ideas Add to ...

I was sitting in the audience of IdeaCity, when tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain made the point that if you want to find a really big idea, you should start by finding a really big problem.

Sounds obvious, right? But the founder of InfoSpace (now Blucora), Intelius and Moon Express went on to say that the big hurdle in finding those big ideas is that people have to re-learn how they see things. Traditionally, we look for opportunities in things –– products, services, supply chains or business models – that we see as broken and in need of fixing. But as Jain pointed out, this doesn’t work any more because “usually things aren’t broken, they’re simply obsolete.”

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This is a powerful concept. In today’s business world, it’s rarely obvious when products or systems are broken. But they may be obsolete. The horse is still a viable means of transportation, and film-based cameras can still take great photographs, but economically, both are dead ends. Similarly, how long did newspaper publishers remain blind and deaf to the digital advertising revolution? And how much longer can department stores and the automobile industry ignore their own ‘best before’ date?

Mr. Jain’s insight should be a kick in the pants to those clinging to the old notion, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is a wake-up call to all of us in business today, from solopreneurs to Fortune 500 executives.

Today, existing products, processes and services shouldn’t be revisited because they’re broken; they should be reviewed, criticized and redesigned because technology and competitive forces have put them on the road to obsolescence.

As an entrepreneur and innovation catalyst, I’m always prodding my clients to look for the next, logical opportunity to bring to market or new processes to explore. Every company today must build a business, if not a business model, that embraces, encourages and promotes a rigorous approach to recognizing new market realities.

Don’t take my word for it. The need for proactive innovation was identified in a 2011 Harvard Business Review interview with Columbia professor Rita Gunther McGrath, who referred to “the increasing speed of everything,” and the emerging notion of inter-industry competition and disruption.

“Competition is coming from unexpected places,” McGrath said. “Who could have anticipated that the iPad’s success would put all kinds of display devices – like electronic photo frames – out of business?”

If you’re counting on entrepreneurial energy to drive your business forward, don’t just look to the top. Innovation depends on engagement and inclusiveness. It requires the executive suite working with middle management and valuing input from the lower ranks, which are usually the most customer-facing. The best innovators also create channels for learning directly from their customers – and yes, they value criticism. Innovation often comes from small teams that tend to work against the company culture rather than with its blessing.

Disruption is upon us, whether we like it or not. A New York Times article described “Google’s Lab of Wildest Dreams.” The story noted, “in an undisclosed Bay Area location where robots run free, the future is being imagined ... It’s a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the Internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you’re eating … These are just a few of the dreams being chased at Google X, the clandestine lab where Google is tackling a list of 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas.“

More conventional innovators are also gearing up. 3M says it has Innovation Centers of Technical Excellence in over 30 countries. “Through dynamic displays and interactive, hands-on demonstrations, customers come to our innovation centers to collaborate with 3M experts and explore creative solutions to help their businesses grow and succeed.” I was surprised to learn, through 3M’s Twitter feed, that the company introduces more than 500 new products each year .

While most entrepreneurs and managers can’t all afford the Google X dream, or even a single innovation centre, we can still tap the resources that we have, and they are not insignificant.

Begin by transforming your regular sales and marketing meetings into business development meetings by including innovation on every agenda. Think big, think different and think customer. Don’t limit yourself.

The first step is to task all team members to bring in new ideas – exciting things they see happening both within your marketplace and in other industries. Encourage everyone to attend business conferences, seminars, workshops, and peer groups, and to listen more closely (and more often) to customers in order to increase idea flow and generation. This step keeps new ideas and opportunities on the front burner every week, rather than relegate them to the old once-a-year corporate retreat.

The second step is to identify the ideas that your team believes have merit and to assign each project a leader or, as I prefer to call it, an ‘opportunity champion.’ Have them approach the opportunity with the same rigour you would any traditional project: present status reports and solicit input from the group. This helps you keep track of ideas and live projects, and also builds a more engaged team – there’s nothing quite as motivating as involvement and feedback to let people know that their voices are being heard and their ideas implemented.

And don’t be afraid to bring in some of your customers for a show-and-tell, as 3M does. Customers are the people who buy what you sell. Their vote actually counts the most in the room.

In 2011, I wrote a column for The Globe & Mail entitled, “Make yourself obsolete, or someone else will.“ Today that article should probably be titled, “You’re already obsolete. What are you waiting for?”

Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works Inc. , is a branding and innovation thought leader who helps organizations reimagine their futures. His second co-authoured book on innovation, Cause a Disturbance ( www.causeadisturbance.com ), is due to be released Fall 2013.

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