Not long ago, I was sitting in on an innovation roundtable. There were about 20 of us, all equally excited about the role of innovation in moving business forward. But after a short while, it became obvious that most of the talk was about technology. Now, let's be clear. I am a huge proponent of technology – developing, investing in and adopting technology to improve the processes in our companies (and lives).
What annoyed me was that the group seemed to consider "technology" a synonym for innovation. But you don't need technology to innovate. True innovation is about doing something new: developing better processes or bringing improved products and services to market. Innovation can be the newest technology, or just a new idea – such as when supermarkets learned to multiply their profit on a piece of fruit by pre-slicing it for today's on-the-run consumer.
Conversely, much of technology today is far from innovative – from Amazon's stone-cold Fire phone to the dorky Google Glass, that unnerved everyone around the (few) people who dared to wear that device.
Regardless, the point of my article is not to hammer technology or its role in business and society, but to promote every possible form of innovation, as a homegrown, low-risk way to create value for organizations and their customers.
The conversation at our roundtable continued, with one participant suggesting that we should find ways to support innovative technology companies. Fair enough, but this was followed by an observation that "We certainly aren't looking to fund hair salons." To which I asked, "Why not?" Why not fund hair salons if their business model is unique and brings new value to customers, such as Blo Blow Dry Bar, the fast-growing retail chain from Vancouver? Their groundbreaking motto: "No cuts, no color: just wash, blo, go." Or how about getting behind the "athleisure" trend? The activewear trend was largely driven by Canadian superstar Lululemon, and now includes new competitors such as Montreal-based Lole.
I think what's missing from most discussions about innovation is the fact that every aspect of human endeavour, not just business, requires continuous tweaking. Consider the National Hockey League, which is always tinkering with the rules, equipment standards and playoff formats to make the game faster, safer and more exciting – and just last month decided to make overtime a three–on-three competition for more freewheeling fun. In a world where everything is always changing, businesses especially must scrutinize all aspects of their operations to see where innovation can make them faster, stronger, more profitable, or more exciting.
Given this imperative, let's look at a few non-technology trends that I believe will drive innovative business opportunities in the coming years.
1) What's Old is New. Unfortunately, what's old is us. The Boomers are aging and with this comes a shift in priorities. The underlying desire is to live active, healthy lives with self-respect and dignity for as long as possible. This leads to increasing demands for home health care products and in-home services: anything and everything that can provide us comfort, safety and day-to-day support, and delay the moment when the boomers must sell their drumkits and move into institutions. Yes, technology has a big role to play in this trend, from new drugs and anti-aging creams to wearable fitness monitors and alert buttons. But other opportunities abound, from custom in-home services to specialty foods, clothing and travel and entertainment services geared to active seniors.
2) Waste Not, Want Not. Mom and Dad told you to save your money and take better care of your things. Now, with increasing population density and shrinking discretionary incomes, making better use of what we have is more important than ever. As our living spaces get smaller, we've seen the rise of new stores, products and designers focused on maximizing storage space. And then there's the "sharing" economy, in which upstart companies such as Airbnb, Uber and RentfrockRepeat help us to get more use out of the homes, cars and clothes that already exist. (Some people think these are technology companies, but I don't see it. They're not developing technology, they simply adopt it to create the powerful communications systems that allow owners and users of goods and services to find and trust each other.)
3) Treat Yourself. Consumers are harried. We are tired, and we face more financial pressures than ever. Sorry for that glamorous analysis of modern life but it's true: it's the reason for the rise of the eight-year car loan and why Ottawa had to ban 40-year mortgages. But the flipside of fiscal stress is rising demand for small indulgences. There are edible temptations such as the cakepop, the cronut, or one of Canada's favourites, the Purdy's hedgehog. There are relaxing indulgences courtesy of the day-spa movement. And you can even indulge yourself at the movies, with cinemas that let you pre-reserve larger seats and enjoy real meals while you watch.
4) Self-innovation. I don't know many people who are completely content with themselves. Most of us have one or two things we'd like to improve, enlarge, reduce or re-invent. Either directly or through online course providers, we can now take thousands of university courses from esteemed institutions. Or we can find websites that teach us how to change the oil in our car, enhance our yoga skills or learn a new language. Being innovative with our own lives is an excellent complement to being innovative in our businesses.
Bottom Line: there are a lot of great companies with new, innovative ideas that go beyond the development of technology. Yes, they incorporate technology in their business model, but so should we all. Most importantly, these companies understand and anticipate market trends, and find new and engaging ways to solve challenging consumer problems.
So, for those of us who will never be technology developers, let's take solace in all the other ways to grow our businesses as we enjoy a cakepop in our rented formal outfit and zip around town with our two-hour car allowance while learning how to ask for fine wines in Spanish.
Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works Inc. is a business and innovation thought leader who is the co-author of two books on innovation including the 2014 bestseller, Cause a Disturbance. Ken is also the co-creator of the D!Series workshops (www.theDseries.com). Follow him on Twitter at @90per centRule.