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Think you're innovative? Eat some humble pie first

Adapted with permission from The Little Black Book of Innovation , by Scott D. Anthony (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012)

Don't Innovate Blind

How can you confirm that an opportunity you have spotted is real?

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First, invest the time to understand the market you hope to target – and always ask why smart people haven't seized an opportunity that looks obvious to you.

When it comes to innovating, sometimes it's useful to describe what not to do. To illustrate, I'll use a Loony Tunes episode I remember from my childhood as a metaphor for the basic concept of avoiding blind innovation.

In said episode, Wile E. Coyote had a diabolical plan to get Bugs Bunny by inserting nitroglycerine into carrots. Bugs would take one bite of the carrot, and, boom, the end would be nigh. Mr. Coyote was proud of his plan. "Wile E. Coyote, super genius," he intoned. "I like the way that rolls out." He cackled maniacally, unaware that Bugs had dragged the "laboratory" onto a train track. The train hits the shack, the nitroglycerine explodes, and the self-proclaimed super genius is left in his classic end-of-episode pose, holding on to a branch over an impossibly steep canyon.

Blind innovation occurs when innovators fall into the trap of believing that their sheer brilliance has allowed them to spot an opportunity that "lesser minds" have missed. This problem particularly afflicts managers in large, well-run companies. They look at other industries with a sneer of derision. "These guys are amateurs," they'll say. "We'll show them how it is really done."

The Infomercial Deception

For example, a couple of years ago, I was working with a project team that planned to create an infomercial to promote its product. The product was tailor-made for an infomercial, which is typically a thirty-minute interactive discussion led by an animated presenter like Ron Popeil or Anthony Sullivan on late-night television. Because it took a bit of explanation to understand the product, it really helped to see the product in action to appreciate its potential benefits.

As the team members started exploring what the industry calls DRTV (for direct response television), they began to think about ways they could also pioneer a new-and-improved approach to infomercials.

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"These commercials are so amateurish," the team said. "We could produce something with much higher production values. Ours would be much more compelling than what is on the air now."

Fortunately, the team was working with a consultant who had significant experience in the DRTV industry. He scolded the team. "You think these ads are low production quality because the people aren't smart?" he said. "It's the exact opposite. These people are brilliant at what they do. The commercials are the way they are because they've tested every approach known to man, and the seemingly amateurish approach generates the most sales. The apparent roughness makes the pitch feel more authentic, which helps to drive sales."

There's an important lesson in this example. The DRTV amateurs saw amateur commercials. The DRTV expert saw an optimized revenue-producing machine.

If you want to innovate, it is always good to start with a degree of humility. Instead of saying, "Why are the idiots doing it this way?" ask, "Why did smart people come up with this solution?" Or "What is it about this that I'm missing?"

Read Globe reporter Wallace Immen's interview with author Scott D. Anthony: Seven deadly sins that derail innovation

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