The Culture of Innovation

In 1991, 37% of top management surveyed by McKinsey and I&TM reported they wanted to be innovation leader in their category. By 1999, that innovation strategy had jumped to 95%. This marked shift signals one of the fundamental changes of doing business these days: global competition, a changing consumer, and time compression have made innovation paramount for survival.

In strategy meetings throughout the world, "ideation" sessions are taking place. Their goal? Brainstorming the next big hit. But how does one latch on to a new idea? And how do you propel your organization forward to make it receptive to the change management required to bring new ideas to market?

There's obviously no better way than breeding innovation from within. Take Apple, for example. Here's a company renowned for creating innovative products that blaze new trails. Apple's new Airport Express, a wireless Internet gateway, allows travelers to add wireless access to a hotel room equipped only with a wired Ethernet connection. Introduced in July, Airport Express has been a huge hit among computer cognoscenti.

But if you study trends, like Always On Wireless CEO Rudy Prince does, you would have noticed that more than 60 million people in the U.S. still use dial up. And while wireless Internet access is catching on fast in hotels around the globe, the vast majority of guest rooms are still relegated to dial-up access — and will be in the near-future. Enter WiFlyer, a product Always On started shipping this week. WiFlyer not only provides Wi-Fi access to non-wired rooms, but brings wireless Internet access to the dial-up crowd as well.

It may seem like a retro idea, but the "unwired" trend has spoiled consumers for anything that requires tethering. So, while surfing at 56Kbps may be going out of style, doing it wirelessly removes some of the pain from a slow process. WiFlyer is also proof that small companies can take on even formidable rivals in a game of one-upmanship. Score: Rudy Prince 1, Steve Jobs 1.

Changing trends hold the key to innovation. Even in presumably staid categories. Take the business attache. That razor-thin leather briefcase is about to join the Dodo bird in extinction, despite the fact that we've entered the "paperless age." The reason is simple. While consumers may be carrying fewer big binders stuffed with documents, their electronic gear has multiplied like digital rabbits.

As a result, consumers have increasingly shifted their burden to bigger, softer bags that can expand on command. The first step in that evolution was the soft briefcase, a bag that resembled the attache in form factor. But of late, business people have begun looking into backpacks, the sherpa gadget of choice of children and teens.

The backpack business began mainstreaming in the '60s, when hippies decided it was cool to begin wandering our wilderness. But the larger manufacturers have largely ignored the concept of backpacks as business carriers, because their focus has been on the wilderness wanderer, not road warriors.

Enter Voltaic Systems, a New York company that has put the backpack on steroids. The Voltaic Backpack features three solar panels that lets consumers recharge iPods and mobile phones while trekking through urban wastelands. It's a radical concept that one ups even people like Axio by Haro Design and Booq, who are the perceived innovation leaders in what some might consider a relatively mundane business.

What company founder Shayne McQuade figured out during his many travels was that there's rarely a convenient power outlet nearby to keep a mobile phone charged. Then his phone charger fell of a ledge and he decided there had to be a better way.

What McQuade tapped into is a rich vein of a trend that's slowly taking off but will be huge one day: e-wear, the electrification of apparel and gear. The average executive carries some 10 pounds of extra gear, compared to the early '80s, including a notebook, an MP3 player, and perhaps a BlackBerry or digital camera. That extra weight, particularly among travelers, must be evenly distributed across the body, which is why backpacks are catching on fast; they're usually worn at shoulder level, with dangling garment bags and luggage on wheels occupying the lower regions.

While this ideation should be firing up corporate luggage and gear manufacturer strategy sessions around the globe, a simple glance of what's available when Googling "backpacks" tells me otherwise. And there are many other aspects to brainstorming new gear that go beyond the scope of this brief article.

This same logic can be applied to any product category. While consumption of carbonated drinks has hit the wall, Fizzy Fruit has come up with an ingenious way to get kids to eat fruit by adding carbonation to strawberries, grapes, and pineapple. Available in 60 school cafeterias for a pilot program this fall, this product appeals to a phenomenon trend-watching firm Iconoculture has dubbed, "Synesthesia" — a growing interest in creating products and environments that stimulate the senses with sight, sound, smell, taste, or feel.

There's no question that there's a greater sense of urgency among executives to be a category innovation leader. How do you stimulate your company to alter its attitude towards change management? I'll leave that issue for next month's installment. May be the forces of innovation be with you.


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