Why do the biggest brands start in a garage?

The greatest start-ups traditionally begin in a garage. But do established organisations know how to innovate? We can’t teach dinosaurs to dance and it is impossible to get large organisations to act like a Silicon Valley start-up. But any company can still be innovative.

It’s unfair to rely on the brightest managers for brilliant ideas. Listen to customers and staff and the next big breakthrough could be on your doorstep…

Here are four ways to show your worth without having to be a creative genius or a risk junkie:

1. Copy an idea
Discount airlines did not start with Ryanair-the idea was imported from the US and Southwest Airlines. Let others do the work for you.

2. Solve a problem

Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony, saw gangs with boom boxes on their shoulders. He spotted that their problem was the need for music on the move. Morita rose to the challenge and the world was introduced to the Walkman and its successor, the iPod. Sir James Dyson took 5,127 prototypes to overcome the difficulty of vacuum cleaners losing suction.

3. Experiment

The dotcom boom and bust was a massive market experiment in making money from the Web. Boo.com and Webvan went down in flames; Amazon won. Google discovered paid search and triumphed, while AOL and Yahoo! were still testing subscription models and banner advertising. Even the smartest brains cannot predict what will work in advance. The only test that counts is the market. If you don’t pay for a ticket, you can’t win the prize.

4. Go one-up
Virgin Atlantic emerged as successor to the ill-fated Laker Airways. Both had a discount model. But Virgin had a 12-seat Upper Class for Richard Branson (later Sir Richard) and his music industry mates. It was great, word spread and Branson had the wit to realise he had hit a gold mine. He built the premium traffic and avoided Laker’s fate.

Most firms do not need breakthrough innovation. They require incremental innovation. This can be process improvement (Total Quality Management, or TQM) or product improvement. The key to both is that top managers do not know all the answers. Knowledge is dispersed-the challenge is to gather it. P&G’s Connect programme looks for product ideas from universities, customers, alumni and the public. Many of the best TQM ideas come from the shop floor.

Successful innovation is not about genius, risk-taking or even technology. Listen to your customers and to your staff well and you may discover the next big idea is closer to home.

This is an article taken from Director, June 2009.

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