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Taking the Road Less Traveled Lara Lee of Jump Associates shares more of her thoughts about the benefits of innovation and how you can use it to take your business to the next level.

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Entrepreneur: What does it mean to be an innovator?

Lara Lee: Innovation is one of those intangible concepts that means something different for each individual or organization. But at Jump Associates, we believe that innovation should be tied directly to growth--the growth of your employees, businesses, clients, products, etc. Whatever form innovation takes, it must also connect deeply with the goals of your organization and with the needs of your customers, or else you're left with novelty. Innovators who succeed in the world are those who figure out the needs of real people, find out what works for them at an emotional level, and provide them with solutions that really connect. Ultimately, empathy is a lot more important than innovation.

Entrepreneur: Where is the line between having a great idea and true success as an innovator? How does one determine that? And is it OK to be a one-time success at innovation?

Lara Lee: The line between a great idea and a successful innovation, whether it is a product or service offering, is very small. Creating technology-forward products is one area where the line is especially blurred. Take the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, for example.

Both Toyota and Honda tried to incorporate every advance in fuel efficiency into a single vehicle, but only Toyota realized that consumers weren't willing to sacrifice the comforts that conventional vehicles offer. The Insight had two seats and a very unconventional form, while the Prius was virtually indistinguishable from the Toyota Echo. It blended in, which helped drive its early adoption and made the Prius a hit while the Insight bombed.

Both companies identified the need for drastically improved fuel efficiency, but Toyota was able to deeply connect with and understand people. Both ideas were fundamentally sound, but, in the end, Honda created a vehicle that was too different from what folks were used to.

Success as an innovator comes when you develop a deep sense of empathy for your customers, partners, employees, etc. Earning people's trust, seeing a human face, caring about what goes on in the world, and creating solutions that solve real problems are the cornerstones of innovation. Empathy is the single most powerful growth engine a company can have. Developing this kind of understanding of your customers and industry is something that will lead to continued success.

Entrepreneur: What are the biggest hurdles of being an innovator?

Lara Lee: Oftentimes organizations strive to be something they're not. At Jump Associates, we call this "Apple Envy." We tell our clients that "not everyone can be Steve Jobs." Many companies believe that because Apple has made a huge investment and found success in design, they should also make design a top priority.

We tell our clients that they should forget what everyone else is doing and play to their individual strengths. And that's the real challenge--not to find someone else's techniques for innovations and import it directly to your organization, but to figure out the methods that are most true to your culture.

Saturn's new dealership strategy is an example of an organization playing to its strengths. The initiative was initially proposed to Jump Associates as a design challenge: Update the dealership showrooms. Simply responding to the brief could have resulted in attractive environments that missed the big opportunity: helping Saturn play to its strengths. We concluded that Saturn's image of "friendliness" is rooted in empowerment of consumers, not hospitality.

With this in mind, the team reframed the project's objective to a more powerful problem: What places make people empowered, and how can we bring those lessons to Saturn retail? The new showrooms are designed to be like an interactive museum, empowering people to learn and explore by themselves. What started as a showroom redesign thus became a successful strategy to differentiate Saturn from competitors and reinforce its core brand values.

Entrepreneur: What are the best ways to keep innovation going in a company?

Lara Lee: At Jump we've identified five keys to creating and sustaining innovation, even through tough economic times like today. When fears of recession loom large, there's a tendency to batten down the hatches and wait for the storm to pass, but tough times actually present new opportunities for growth and innovation. The five strategies are:

Know yourself: Play to your strengths instead of trying to shore up your weaknesses.
Know your customer: Be clear on where the best opportunities lie.
Know your strategy: Understand what you can execute better than competitors.
Know what you don't know: Build a learning plan into every new launch.
Know how to lead: Inspire your organization to rise up to opportunities, not hunker down in fear.

Apart from these specific strategies, empathy is the golden rule behind innovation and growth. At Jump Associates we use hybrid thinking--a synthesis of techniques from multiple disciplines focused on understanding the underlying needs, motivations and values of real people. This helps organizations reframe a situation and see hidden opportunities for innovation and growth.

Entrepreneur: What is the motivation for a company that is already successful to implement innovation?

Lara Lee: Sustainable competitive advantage. No one can thrive forever optimizing around their existing set of offerings. Individual solutions come and go, and new competitors emerge. Even the most successful organizations can find themselves in trouble if they don't continually strengthen their empathic connections to the people they serve. That's because when you can anticipate the needs of your customers, you can create solutions that meet those needs better and sooner than any other company.

Take GE. There are few more successful or enduring organizations in American industry. The reason for that is a constant focus on new ideas and new markets. A few years back, GE had created a fiber that had applications in the textile industry, and the company approached Jump to create a go-to-market strategy for its new technology. GE thought that because this was a B2B solution, but we helped them come to the understanding that, B2B aside, their target audience was comprised of real people.

With this insight in mind, GE took a collaborative approach with its prospective customers, working to solve their problems together instead of offering technology-driven turnkey solutions. By understanding these people at a human level, GE realized significant revenue in the market in 18 months, not five years.

Entrepreneur: The article briefly discusses not allowing innovation to run amok--what is the best way to maximize innovation while simultaneously focusing it?

Lara Lee: The most important thing to do is to be savvy about the possible results of innovation. Depending on just how new an idea is, people might not be ready for it yet. They might not understand what it's for or why they would use it. When Starbucks first came out, people laughed at the idea of paying $3 for a cup of coffee, but it's now standard behavior. It just took more than a decade to work.

Companies need to be aware of how much change they're trying to introduce. If an innovation is just about a minor upgrade to an existing product, the results are reliable. If you're trying to open an entirely new market, you need to very carefully manage your investments in radical new ideas, and be prepared to wait through a slow growth process before they really hit.

Quite simply, people need a balanced portfolio of sustaining, breakout and disruptive ideas. If you know how likely an idea is to succeed and understand what its potential payoff will be, you're far more likely to avoid throwing good money after bad in pursuit of an idea that never takes off.

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