To Foster Innovation, Find New Ways To Stack Your Advantages

Great innovators stack their advantages like my 5-year-old stacks Legos. Steve Jobs, who took the pieces already out there (a new hard drive, digital music distribution, a beautiful case) and stacked them together into something new (an iPod), proved there are ways to create something new by restacking what you’ve already got.

To Foster Innovation, Find New Ways To Stack Your Advantages


Last year, after my 5-year-old son had his tonsils removed, the doctor put us under strict orders to keep him still for several days. This was not an easy task. My son is in constant animated motion…or asleep.

But my son will sit still for Legos. For three hours he sat quietly, head down, picking through the pieces, assembling the most mind-blowing spaceship-submarine-dinosaur catcher you have ever seen!

My son knows the keys to building something great: You sit down, look at your pieces, stack them in new ways, and then see what you have. We all know this process, but for some reason we lose our youthful creativity when the pieces we play with appear to grow more significant. Instead of playing with red and yellow blocks, we play with missions and visions and priorities, with best practices and human resources. Somehow we fail to inject that excitement and creativity we once brought to everything we did.

While most of us fiddle with a couple loose pieces on the table, great innovators keep stacking.

Consider Dave Dickinson, CEO of Zeo, who after three decades in consumer health care decided he wanted to pick up a new set of pieces and build something entirely new. In March 2007, he was asked to take the CEO role of a startup launched by three Brown University classmates with an idea, $1 million in seed funding, and a passion for helping people.

Prior to Dickinson joining them, the team of young scientists had spent three years proving that what others said was impossible could be done. They proved that one could, according to Dickinson, “access the measurement of brain waves and interpret those waves in sleep phase data–REM sleep, deep sleep, light sleep–[so that] they could precisely pick a point for wakeup and therefore help people optimize their daytime performance by the measurement of sleep phases.”


Now, a traditional venture capitalist might look at this and focus on the one piece of the puzzle the team had assembled: some kind of sleep technology that we might be able to sell to a bigger company. But that is adult thinking. That is digging through the Lego box to find the one most important piece. Dickinson decided to start with the piece that the team had already developed and guide them to start building something unique.

The company had built out its core. They had found that by using sensors made of dry–or silverized–fabric, they could get accurate readings of brainwaves without the messy adhesives used in laboratories. They stacked onto that another technology breakthrough. They trained an artificial intelligence system by having people wear both their simple dry fabric sensors as well as the more complex conventional technology, a tangle of wires and sensors, to get a system that could with just three sensors accurately measure which stage of sleep someone is in.

Dickinson took their findings and layered onto them an inspiring mission. “They [the founders] came into the business world with deep commitments around helping people,” he said. “And it was an amazing blend of passion that transcended into a bigger social mission.”

He stacked this technology and mission onto a huge untapped market. Consider that there are essentially three ways for you to manage your long-term health: diet, exercise, and sleep. The diet and exercise markets exceed $80 billion in the U.S., yet relatively little is spent on improving sleep.

Finally, he hitched this strategy onto a nascent “Quantified Self” movement, founded by Wired editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, as a community for people who wanted to use technology to track and share data (e.g., exercise logs, air quality, sleep) to better understand and manage themselves. The Zeo sleep monitor is now one of the most popular tools used by members of this movement.

I got a chance to use the Zeo sleep monitor for several months. Like any new habit, it took me a while to catch on, to remember to place the headband from the docking station next to my bed onto my forehead, turn on the Zeo app on my mobile phone, and re-dock after I slept so the phone could process the data. But after you track the visually compelling graphs for a few days, you can easily get hooked on the feedback, and sleeping is so much easier than going to the gym!


Dickinson could have taken the usual route. He could have pulled out the one unique piece and found someone to sell it to. But then the technology would probably be sitting in an R&D lab somewhere gathering dust. Consider that great innovators stack their advantages like my 5-year-old stacks Lego blocks. Because they stack they bring something spectacular and new into the world. Isn’t that what Steve Jobs was brilliant at–taking the pieces already out there (a new hard drive, a willingness to distribute digital music, a beautiful case) and stacking them together into something new (an iPod)?

Have you started stacking the pieces, linking one source of uniqueness to another in your company? Or does your company look more like RIM or Yahoo, which once had built colorful towers of stacked advantages but then picked them away to their “core,” until they were stuck with a loose block or two scattered across the table?

Take a couple of hours out this afternoon to stop…look at your pieces and stack them together in new ways.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Becraft]

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique.