I read a great phrase the other day: "Innovation is not renovation." I couldn't agree more. Innovation goes beyond slapping a new coat of paint on a product or service. It's about finding ways to add real value for your customers. Value that makes their lives better, easier or less complicated.
Many business leaders shy away from innovation because they think it needs to be complicated. In reality, the process is easier than they think because successful innovation harnesses the obvious.
The essence of innovation lies in understanding what clients need and capitalizing on market shifts. It's about continually re-engaging customers by meeting their changing preferences, often before they even realize those needs have changed.
Companies should start by recognizing their many opportunities to practice easy, effective innovation. The following 10 examples may reset your brain. They'll help you see how simple it can be to develop new products, services and processes that will make a splash in any market.
The common theme? All 10 of these examples surprise and delight customers by solving problems, old or new. When you spend day and night obsessing over customers' needs, innovation really becomes an exercise in bringing the obvious to life.
The twist-off beer cap
Even though the twist-off cap has been around for 50 years, it remains a pre-eminent example of simple yet game-changing innovation. I was working with a group of engineers not long ago and asked them to suggest simple innovations that have changed their lives. The twist-off beer cap was their favourite. Before twist-offs were commonplace, life was harsh and cruel. Using the engineers' words (not mine), once you misplaced the bottle opener early in the evening at a university party, you spent far too long searching for it through the night.
I've yet to drive one of the new self-parking cars, so I will cite an automotive innovation that's a little more mainstream: the side-mirror sensors that light up when a car is in your blind spot and blink when you put your turn signal on. An ingenious step forward in driver safety.
Simple, obvious, wildly inexpensive – yet only invented in 1993. These finger-saving pieces of textured paperboard may be the most elegant innovation of all.
Selfie stick: If people are going to insist on taking photographs of themselves and their friends, why not help them take better photographs of themselves and their friends? A classic example of a lightning-quick response to a sudden behaviour shift.
Netflix, Nook and Kindle
We are no longer patient people. So instead of making us visit a storefront or wait for delivery, these powerful enablers of entertainment allow us to access any movie, TV series, video game or book we want … now!
This global room-renting, house-sharing app lets you choose precisely the accommodation you want. It's cost-effective for users and a new business model for owners. A classic case of disintermediation.
Remote car starter
Hey, this is Canada. On a cold, dark winter morning, a warmed-up car may not make your day perfect. But it's a hell of a good start.
No more searching for the scoop and guessing how much detergent to use. Set and forget: Someone else has done all the work.
As long as we have internal combustion engines, fewer cars on those roads is good for the planet. Rewarding drivers for sharing the ride with passengers makes eminent sense.
There is nothing better than high-quality service to build customer loyalty. One of Canada's foremost service practitioners is Longo's, an independent Ontario grocery chain. When a customer asks where an item is, Longo's policy is not to have an employee just point to the right aisle, but to walk customers to the exact shelf where the product sits. At a Longo's recently, I watched an elderly shopper ask for help. Longo's team member led her to the right location, and then re-arranged the goods in the basket of her walker to assuage the customer's fear that her softer groceries might get damaged. Little things make a big difference.
If you're out to make a difference in your market, you'll face two well-known barriers to change: the naysayers who argue "That'll never work," and those who say "We don't have time to innovate." Ignore the doubts. Innovation is easy when you target real needs with inexpensive, intuitive solutions. Look for simple wins. And keep the breakthroughs coming.
Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of branding and innovation company Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. Follow him on Twitter at @90per centrule.