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Want to Build a Faster Horse? Follow these 3 Innovation Strategies Your innovation strategy is crucial to your enterprise's success and productivity.

By Jim Contardi Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Flashback to the early 20th century when Henry Ford (supposedly) once said, "If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would've told me a faster horse." Most people at this time knew they wanted to get around faster but could not have envisioned a motorized vehicle replacing their horse-drawn buggies.

Now, fast forward to the creation of the Model T. If you told consumers that one day these automobiles would drive themselves, I bet they would have told you you're crazy.

So, what does this have to do with being an entrepreneur today? Besides my love and fascination with cars and racing, I've used the problem Henry Ford alludes to help guide my innovation process.

Related: Innovative Strategies to Achieve Workplace Wellness

1. Tap into the unknown

One might think that the lesson from Henry Ford's faster horses is that it is reasonable to ignore customers when pursuing innovation. However, that is not the case entirely. Customers can't always tell you what they want or envision the perfect solution for their problem, but they can certainly tell you what they hope to accomplish.

As companies continue to improve and innovate their customer service efforts and experiences, consumers are beginning to expect the same level of services across all companies they interact with. In today's digital world, meeting customer expectations has risen to an all-time high. In fact, 93% of customer service teams say customers have higher expectations than ever before.

From here, identifying the best answer, solution and experience for your customer is where you can bridge the gap between the company and the customer. But the real innovation journey and sense of entrepreneurship is in finding solutions to problems consumers didn't even know existed and not just meeting but exceeding customer expectations.

Related: Create a Winning Talent Strategy to Drive Innovation

2. Start, and don't stop

At its core, innovation is a continuous and non-linear process. Henry Ford didn't stop at just one version of the Model T, and neither did other auto manufacturers that followed. My goal is to end each day smarter than the last. To achieve this, I've learned that fresh and creative ideas and insights are invaluable and that it often requires me to step outside my comfort zone to reach this level of innovation.

After working at an entry-level sales job, I stepped outside my comfort zone and knew I was ready for a change. I had grown up in sales but gravitated towards more management roles where I could make a real difference. In these roles, I learned that business ebbs and flowed, much like anything in life. As an action-oriented person, I used this as an opportunity to improve continuously, whether in business or in my personal life.

For example, during the first year of COVID, I was CEO of a company whose ultimate end customer — our customer's customer — was food service operators. We could have chosen to halt our new development investments and hunker down, but we felt our innovations would help our customers do business in a digital-only, touchless environment. We moved ahead and delivered to the market with significant uptake – we grew our business on the back of that innovation during 2020.

3. It's a team effort

The foundation of every great idea is solving a problem that energizes innovators. In most cases, innovation does not take place in isolation. Yes, a single individual can spearhead transforming an industry, but far more frequently, this change is led by teams, and I've found most people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Modern teams are more dynamic and diverse than before. To this end, leading an innovation team doesn't come without challenges. In my experience, I strive to ensure that everyone on the team understands their role and importance in the team's collective purpose and mission. Not only does this get people fired up to win together, but it also allows team members not to be afraid to think creatively and out of the box.

Most recently, this proved to be true while acquiring and unifying several companies. Our legal entity structure had gotten more complex, making payroll processing more complicated. At first glance, it seemed like a complex undertaking. However, after bringing together our legal and payroll teams, they identified where they could make short-term simplifications to improve the payroll experience – which ultimately benefited all our team members and was not something that could easily have been constructed or identified if the teams were working separately.

Related: 11 Proven Habits of Highly Innovative People

Making the change

The late Clay Christensen, a professor at Harvard University, devised a framework called "jobs to be done" where he suggested that customers are not buying 'stuff'; they are hiring stuff to get a particular job done. This gets to the heart of the innovation process. I find that looking through the 'job' lens helps to accelerate value creation. This framework, combined with Ford's notion of 'building a faster horse,' no longer leaves innovation as a game of chance but as a chance for real change.

Jim Contardi

CEO of Revalize

Jim Contardi serves as the chief executive officer of Revalize, the worldwide leader in revenue operations software for manufacturers, their distributors, and their specifiers.

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