Expert's Opinion

Step Back to Look Ahead - Not So Traditional Innovation Methods

By Nancy Mills, Kline & Company | April 8, 2010

Nancy Mills of Kline & Company urges executives to look at problems and situations in a new light.

The word innovation has been bandied about over the past few years in popular press, business press, press conferences, and in times of pressure. Too often in the consumer products world this is interpreted to mean product development innovation. Of course, there is always room to innovate in product development – in ingredients, formulations, applications, and delivery systems, but let’s take a step back and reflect on other ways that companies can be innovative.

There are many other types of innovation and interesting ways to get there. For example, there are business models and network structures, process innovation, organizational, and delivery, among others. Furthermore there are different levels of innovation; for example, incremental vs. disruptive, where the former is building a better widget, and the latter renders widgets obsolete and creates new industries or segments.

However, breakthrough innovations often come about at the intersection of fields—such as the bicycle helmet that was designed after studying how the skull protects the brain. And this is where organizational innovation can come into play. When we as experts find a way to get out of our cocoons of entrained thinking and are able to see problems or situations in a new light, we can have those “ah-ha” moments.

It is a natural aspect of human nature that people see the world through their “lens of expertise.” This is why innovation is so difficult to achieve when the same people who are responsible for the same tasks are told to do things in a different way or to think of something totally novel—because it is so difficult to get out of one’s “own head.”

The “Boss Undercover” reality TV show is a very interesting exercise in seeing things through other perspectives. Company CEOs go undercover for a week, spending each day in a different town doing a different lower level job in their own company. They go back to the corner office illuminated with ideas as to how to improve processes, employee loyalty, management, operations, and many other aspects that they would never have imagined by sitting in their chairs all day and having meetings with other executives.

Likewise, the key to building loyalty to a brand and to developing blockbuster new products benefits enormously from being able to listen in on the conversations consumers are having about products. By using emergent research, companies can be “flies on the wall,” listening to these conversations, and thanks to advancements in the fields of cultural anthropology, knowledge management, and software, we can make sense of massive amounts of unstructured feedback. An important key point of emergent research is that you can’t predict the results in advance. Marketers who have become comfortable with traditional research methods may not like what they hear. But when you allow your audience to drive the conversation rather than forcing them down a pre-determined path, you are bound to be stimulated into innovative thinking.

About the Author
Nancy Mills is the industry manager for the Consumer Products practice at Kline & Company. She is currently launching the new program Kline Pulse: Consumer Insights of Personal Care Innovation 2010. This forward-looking study combines cutting-edge primary consumer research with Kline’s market data. To learn more visit: She oversees the Cosmetics & Toiletries and Household Cleaning Products reports and is the global project manager in charge of Natural Personal Care. Nancy also manages parts of the Professional Skin Care, Beauty Retailing and Salon Hair Care studies. She has 13 years of experience in global business: market research, strategic marketing and consulting. She is regularly quoted in all major industry publications and many national media outlets.