| We are all by nature inventive, and ideas are cheap. The real challenge is innovation, bringing a great invention or idea to commercial fruition. It is the application of the idea that takes true genius, hard work, patience, timing, and often good luck and good connections. It is what separates the millionaire entrepreneur from the pauper inventor.
Here are three stories of innovation, each with a different lesson. While they are all product innovations (and most of us probably have all three products in our homes), the lessons apply equally to the innovation of services, business processes and operating technologies.
The story of the Weed Eater is a lesson in observation and application of science from one discipline to a completely different one, what de Bono famously calls lateral thinking.
In 1971, Texan George Ballas was looking for a better way to trim around the trees in his yard. One day, while going through an automatic car wash he observed how the bristles stood out straight as they spun around. Returning home, he punched some holes in a discarded popcorn tin, inserted knotted fishing line through the holes, and attached the contraption to his rotary electric edger. It worked so well he founded his own company, Weed Eater Inc. refined the product until it virtually sold itself in hardware stores nationwide, and finally sold out to Frigidaire Poulan, who still produce them by the million.
Note that Ballas did it all — the lateral thinking invention, testing and refinement, finding financing and taking the personal risk of launching a new company. He didn’t just patent the prototype and look for a buyer.
The story of the Swiffer Wet-Jet floor cleaner is a lesson in continuous improvement and adaptation within an enterprise. The concept of ‘wipes’ is not new — those little packets of alcohol-imbued cloth for cleaning your fingers have been around for nearly a century. When consumer demand for convenience cleaning products rose in the 1980s, companies like Proctor & Gamble realized the opportunity they had to create new convenience products by combining every one of their cleaning products with a cloth applicator. On their web site they advised inventors not to bother sending them ideas for new ‘wipe’ products, and had a whole department developing and launching such products. The Swiffer Wet-Jet was a two-stage innovation. First they applied the absorbent cloth technology of their diapers to make a dry floor-cleaning cloth. When that was perfected they then added the liquid dispenser arm to the handle for wet cleaning as well. The collapsible handle allowed easy portability, and the old mop-and-pail was history. Now we look forward to the next innovation: washable, reusable cloths for this product so they don’t clog our landfills.
P&G is constantly looking for other commercial opportunities to adapt technologies they already own and use. It’s a lesson other businesses could learn from.
The story of Greenies, those funny green toothbrush-shaped pet treats, shows us that innovation often comes from observing and imitating nature. Veterinarian Joe Roetheli and his wife Judy had a Samoyed with terrible breath. They had observed that many dogs love to chew grass and other plants, and that the chlorophyll in plants is a natural breath-freshener. They combined the technology of existing hard dog treats designed to scrape tartar off dogs’ teeth, with a chlorophyll-based breath freshener, and reduced the fat content, and the result was Greenies, a treat that’s good for your dog, that sells out in pet food stores even at its outrageous price.
A lesson here is that innovation often results from the application of expertise to a pressing problem. If you’re an innovator, make sure your wonderful product actually fills a perceived need, and stick to areas of discovery you have deep knowledge about.
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