Successful innovators don’t care about innovating

Successful innovators care about solving interesting and important problems — innovation is merely a byproduct. SPONSOR CONTENT

December 26, 2014 |
Steven Burns

Successful innovators care about solving interesting and important problems — innovation is merely a byproduct.

A recent Harvard Business Review article emphasizes that a focus on innovation tends to be born from self-centered motives, while a focus on solving interesting and important problems tends to be born from customer-centered motives.

To make the point, the piece highlights paint maker Sherwin-Williams, whose customer research uncovered the fact that painting contractors tend to make paint-buying decisions based more on proximity to job site than brand of paint. This led to a hypothesis that saturating a market with stores to ensure there’s a store close to any job site will produce outsized market share growth.

Sherwin-Williams tested the hypothesis in four markets and it worked. But as the company tried rolling it out to more markets, competitors quickly caught on. Suddenly it became a race for real estate and competitive advantage was lost.

During the 2009 recession, Sherwin-Williams’ competitors started shuttering stores to cut costs. Despite strong shareholder pushback, Sherwin-Williams did the opposite, opening 60 to 100 stores per year during the downturn. It was a risky bet, but they didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be close to customers when the market inevitably rebounded. When it did rebound, revenue growth far outstripped that of competitors.

“We’ve always looked at business more like dating than war,” says Sherwin-Williams Senior Vice President Bob Wells. “In war, you’re focused on beating the competition. In dating you’re focused on strengthening a relationship. That difference of perspective has a million knock-on effects for how decisions get made.”

The article underscores that successful innovation begins as a mindset rather than a process or outcome.

“It’s characterized by a dogged determination to see the world through your customers’ eyes,” writes article author Doug Sundheim.

So how can you foster this mindset?

“Disabuse yourself of the notion that innovation is some high-minded creative process reserved for a certain class of people,” Sundheim continues. “Remember that most great innovations have been developed by regular people inspired by a problem.”

“Get out of the building and talk to your customers. Listen to their challenges. Come up with back-of-the-envelope, harebrained ideas about how you can help them. Get comfortable with the idea that you’ll throw 99% of those envelopes in the trash. When you lose your motivation, go back to the problem statement. Never stray from the problem statement. Let it inspire you. Let it lead you.”

Read more from Harvard Business Review

Steven Burns | The Business Behind Design

Steven Burns, FAIA spent 14 years managing the firm Burns + Beyerl Architects, and during that time the firm’s earnings grew at an average rate of 24% per year. After founding his own software company, Steve took his management expertise to BQE Software, where he is refining their business strategy and product development for the company’s groundbreaking project accounting solution, BQE Core.

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