When Joel Gascoigne started Buffer, he didn’t set out to disrupt an industry. He just wanted an easy way to share valuable content on social media without having to send several tweets at once, or schedule each post individually. He gathered feedback, built the app; and a multimillion-dollar company was born. Now, Buffer is even adding a customer-service based tool within Twitter.
Though TweetDeck already had been created to manage Twitter streams, Gascoigne realized users needed more automation and access to other platforms. Without his outsider’s zoom focus on what the social platform lacked, he might never have created that solution.
Often, the best innovations come from industry newbies or employees on the lower level of the business chain. These advances offer simple, intuitive solutions, even to complex challenges. The founders of Uber -- who had never worked in the taxi industry -- looked at cabs’ expensive fares, long waits and messy payment standards and said, “We can do better.”
The result was an easy, app-based system for booking private cars. And consumers loved it. But how, exactly, do you replicate a similar shift in your industry?
Cultivate an outsider mentality.
Companies often struggle to innovate. Depending on a company's size, its hierarchy may stifle creativity, leaving its thinking so embedded in existing value chains and revenue forecasts that it dismisses ideas that don’t fit its paradigm.
1. Think like a designer by considering users first.
To create something cutting edge, challenge the status quo. View your product through an outsider’s eyes, looking for design flaws that users will likely spot. Designers are in the business of creating elegant solutions, which is why many of the great innovations in recent years came from design-first mentalities.
Airbnb is an example. It wasn’t the first company to improve on the time-share model, but its designers differentiated their company by making the company's site extremely user-centric. Design-first thinking has helped popularize companies from GE Healthcare to Bank of the West, and now IBM, by forcing them to consider the user and the functionality first, rather than the features they think will work.
2. Hire individuals who are cross-functional.
Your entire team, not just the leadership, needs to be on board with this notion of thinking like an outsider. However forward-thinking you consider yourself, your sales team might be reluctant to adapt to new strategies. To help resolve this, make your company cross functional so that everyone is an outsider at some point.
Technology demands that innovative teams represent a mix of skills, regardless of industry. Staff your new company with “pie-shaped individuals,” or workers with “slices” of expertise in diverse areas, who can work across departments to create a truly cross-functional team.
Product creation and user experience are tightly intertwined these days, especially when it comes to digital delivery. The traditional cycle through research and development and customer service has become faster and shorter, requiring increased collaboration. People from different departments should work together to brainstorm breakthrough ideas, push through rapid prototyping, conduct tests and build the actual product.
3. Explain your product to a 5-year-old.
You can’t get any more of an outsider mentality than you can with a child. Before going to market, ask whether you could explain your product to a kindergartener, by dialing back your language from industry jargon and ultra-scientific phrases to words that anyone can understand.
The simpler your explanation, the more likely people are to comprehend the uses of the product or service and avail themselves of them. Anything can be described simply -- from tectonic plates to cockpit controls -- so do your best to concentrate on the listener, rather than hierarchies and sales numbers.
4. Piggyback on past ideas.
Creating something new and useful should always be the goal, even if you begin by building on someone else’s ideas. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a great example of a company that disrupted an industry without creating a new solution -- but still reentered that industry with a new set of eyes.
Amazon didn’t invent cloud technology; it wasn’t even in the business of providing technology services. But its internal processes for running a large-scale enterprise were so good, its leadership decided to create a public option. Today, because of Amazon’s initial “outsider” status, AWS generates more than $1.5 billion in revenue and plays a key role in the company’s larger success.
5. Launch only when the market is ready.
Remember that timing is key to your product’s success; even brilliant ideas fail if they launch before the market is ready. Hit the market too early, and no one will see the need for your product. Hit too late, and the problem your service addresses will have already been solved. Why does the world need your particular product at this moment? If you can’t answer that question, your concept needs to be refined.
Even if you’re not the first to invent a solution, you can offer a renewed take -- such as what Gascoigne did by thinking up Buffer -- by leveraging your own core competencies. Creating new products or improving on someone else’s ideas is not enough: You need a fresh perspective to compete and give the market a product never seen before.