The biggest breakthroughs in the history of business—and the history of the world—are never the result of conventional thinking, says Maria Ferrante-Schepis, a veteran in the insurance and financial services industry who now consults Fortune 100 companies such as GE with innovation agent Maddock Douglas, Inc.
“To echo Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt back in 1960, ‘In every case, the reason growth (in business) is threatened, slowed or stopped is not because the market is saturated. It is because there has been a failure of management.’ Many of the world’s biggest companies are simply riding on inertia,” says Ferrante-Schepis, author of Flirting with the Uninterested, coauthored by G. Michael Maddock, which explores innovation opportunity through the lens of the insurance industry.
“There’s a great saying in the South: ‘You can’t read the label when you are sitting inside the jar,’ ” says Maddock, CEO of Maddock Douglas. “It’s hard to see a need and invent a way to fill that need when you’ve been inside one business or industry for a long time.”
Recognizing those needs requires stepping outside of the jar and viewing things from the outside, adds Ferrante-Schepis. “You can’t innovate from inside the jar, and if you aren’t innovating, you’re just waiting for the expiration date on your business,” she says.
Ferrante-Schepis and Maddock bust five myths relating to corporate innovation:
• The preference of four out of five dentists doesn’t necessarily matter: Many years ago, when the Maddock Douglas firm consulted with P&G to develop new oral healthcare products, Crest was recommended by most dentists. However, it turns out the market had shifted; consumers became more interested in bright smiles than healthy gums. Many industries make the mistake of getting their insights from their own experts rather than asking the consumer.
• Giving all your love to those who already love you: In the interest of preserving customer morale, too many companies focus on those who already love their service. But that’s not what companies need to work on; they need to focus on what’s not working in order to improve. The haters very often offer well-targeted insights that can tremendously improve products, customer service, and/or operations.
• “We tried that idea. It didn’t work.” What idea, exactly? People who are in the jar interpret new ideas based on how they last saw them. You may think you’ve tried or tested an idea, but if you applied it in a conventional way, the way it’s always been used, you haven’t really tried it. Consider the term “auction” -- in-the-jar thinkers envision Sotheby’s and not the more practical and innovative eBay.
•Trying to impress with insider jargon: Communication is a huge part of innovation. Policies in the health-insurance industry, for example, include language that may make sense to insiders, but say nothing to the average middle-class customer, which is prohibitive. Be very careful about the language you use. In this case, “voice of the customer” should be taken literally. Customers recognize, respond to and build from their own words more than from yours.
• Staying at your desk and in the office: Doubling down on what already has not worked for you is not innovative. Get outside your office and act like an anthropologist. Spend time with your customers and bring an expert interpreter and a couple of members of your team. Compare notes; you’ll be shocked at how differently you all see the situation.