Think Your Mundane Idea Can't Be a Big Innovation? Take a Second Look.
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Fred Forsburg, proprietor of Honeyhill Farms in Livonia, N.Y., has a passion for garlic. And he's fond not just of any garlic but rather the gourmet-quality, hard-necked kind. He doesn't go for the imported withered nodules stocked by many U.S. supermarkets. He prefers fresh robust heads infused with the terroir of the rich soil found in the Finger Lakes region.
It's the stuff culinary dreams are made of, according to Forsburg.
A farmer since 1978, Forsburg knew the garlic he grew was special but found little profit in it. For a small, entrepreneurial farmer, garlic is time-consuming and labor intensive to plant, and that’s only if he or she is lucky enough to find help willing to do this onerous work. There had to be a better way, he thought.
In 2011 Forsburg developed a tractor-pulled garlic-planting platform. The invention was relatively simple: a base unit, a platform and a functional unit with interchangeable, task-specific add-ons. When Forsburg put his invention to the test, he felt he had a winning idea because the platform increased the speed for planting fivefold, decreased labor costs and eliminated negative ergonomic issues associated with such labor.
From this prototype, and with funding from the Northeast division of the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, Forsberg refined the platform so that it could perform additional tasks and hopes that other farmers will adopt it for their crops.
Individuals can be change makers with innovations that are well-thought-out and executed.
Forsburg’s device demonstrates that innovation does not need to involve high technology. Successful innovation can result from tinkering with everyday things to make life easier, more enjoyable or convenient and less costly.
Certainly Jake Zien, the youthful inventor of the Pivot Power flexible surge-protector strip, would agree. Zien came up with his idea in high school and then as a college student in 2010 sought funding from Quirky, itself a startup that helps bring new products to market. Zien’s simple contraption solves the problem of awkward space configurations requiring a person to plug cords into different power sources.
Sara Blakely’s simple idea -- for footless, seamless pantyhose used to shape the body under a garment -- achieved the kind of success many entrepreneurs dream of. In 1998 Blakely introduced her product Spanx. Blakely, though, would likely be the first to caution that “simple” does not mean “easy”: It took three years of trial and error, while Blakely kept her day job, to bring the first Spanx to market.
The experiences of Forsburg, Zien and Blakely are exactly why I always tell my clients not to get stuck on the notion that innovation is limited to science, high technology or medicine. These may be the areas in which innovations make headlines, but an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily need a laboratory or a huge R&D enterprise to change the world. But the individual does need a little confidence, perseverance -- and passion.
Make innovative thinking part of the everyday routine.
Inventiveness begets inventiveness. The more that individuals practice making what I call "red thread connections," the more innovative they become.
Red thread connections happen when someone gives himself permission to go beyond fixed ideas and assumptions, such as thinking that a small farmer could never turn a labor-intensive crop such as garlic into a moneymaker. So take that little idea for creating a better, faster, cheaper something and grow that seed into a successful new product.