As I've often said in the past, the best businesses are 'dramatically and demonstrably different' from their competitors. They do things that their competitors don't do. Even better, they do things they can't do. Gary Hamel, in his book, 'Leading the Revolution' says:
"Better, faster, cheaper is not enough. Others will always get there first or quickly catch you up. You need to be profoundly different, with a radically different customer-centred offer"
It's clear that a key ingredient of creating competitive advantage and differentiating your business is innovation, but what exactly does that mean in today's ever-more competitive business world?
The definition of innovation that I like and use is "the successful exploitation of new ideas". It means finding and /or generating new ideas, and vitally, doing something with them!
In this article, I want to focus on the "finding and / or generating" bit! Where do your ideas come from to help you get ahead of your competitors? It's a challenge that we all face (and obviously one that our competitors do too).
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always had". Although that sounds like something that David Brent from The Office would say, there's a lot of truth in it, particularly if you're talking about improving your competitiveness and getting ahead of your competitors.
The 'finding' of ideas to help differentiate your business is a vital first step, and there are lots of ways of doing this. We all have our own favourites. However, are you guilty of 'always doing the same things' particularly when it comes to spotting, generating and developing ideas? I know, on occasion, I certainly am!
So, how do the best innovators do it? Some recent research by Harvard Business School highlighted five secrets of successful innovators (I'm always nervous about people who promote 'secrets' - by definition, if you're promoting them, they aren't 'secret' any more). But anyway, here they are (with my interpretations added).
- Associating: It's about 'connecting' stuff
- Questioning: Asking 'why?' 'what if?' ' how?' etc
- Observing: Watching others do stuff
- Experimenting: Trying things out
- Networking: Meeting and connecting with others
So, now the secrets are out, what does this mean for you? Maybe you do some, or all of these things, but do you always do them in the same environment all the time?
Do you always attend the same networks, read the same newspapers and magazines, and visit the same websites? Do you always focus on the same businesses when trying to 'get ahead'? If so, maybe you're always getting the same outcomes.
My recommendation is try fishing in different ponds - that means doing the things above in environments you're not so familiar with. The likelihood then, is that you'll not 'get what you always have'.
So, rather than always looking to the same businesses for ideas that you always do, always tapping into the same trade associations that you always tap into, always visiting the same websites that you always do, always listening to the same podcasts you always listen to, always attending the same conferences and trade shows you always do, always visiting the same network meetings you always go to, always reading the same books, newspapers, magazines and trade journals you always do, why not do something different and see how other people, businesses, industries, countries, even cultures, actually do stuff to differentiate themselves?
Go on, it's relatively easy to do and you never know what you might discover.
I'm not saying stop reading Management Issues (heaven forbid!), but why not have a look at other business and management websites (or non- management ones) too? As a minimum, read one of the Thought Leaders on this website that you normally skip.
Most of us are creatures of habit. We read the same columns and sections each time, and often in the same order (I know, you ALWAYS turn to this one first don't you?). So why not 'break that pattern'?
Don't know what to visit, read, or see? Ask others what they recommend. What ponds do they fish in? But don't simply ask people who are just like you. Find out from people who have less in common with you.
So if you're old, ask someone younger. If you're male, ask someone female. If you're in sales, ask someone in finance. If you're a 'techy' ask an artist. If you live in England, ask someone in the US, or even France (hey, it's 'revolutionary' stuff this!). My point is, don't just ask people like you because there is a good chance that they fish in the same pond as you do.
This is all about trying new things, and leaving your comfort zone, but it doesn't have to be too extreme (if you don't want it to be).
Here's a simple little tip I picked up from someone I worked with many years ago who was a real forward-thinker and an extremely successful entrepreneur. Every now and then when I'm travelling by train, I fish in a different pond by making a conscious effort to buy a magazine related to a topic I know absolutely nothing about to see what I can learn.
Sometimes, it works and I see things I wasn't aware of or hadn't considered. Sometimes it doesn't. But the pluses certainly outweigh the minuses. So, if you see me sat on a train reading Knitting Journal or Hairdressers Monthly that explains why!
So if you're looking for ideas to differentiate your business, get fishing for them - but do it in different ponds. Just don't stop reading my column on Management Issues!
If you have some ponds that work for you, do please share them with rest of us below - we can all learn from each other (and that's one of the driving success factors of this website!).