While innovation has always been core to the success of businesses, it’s the combination of speed and rapid consumer adoption that has completely changed the landscape. Put simply, companies that don’t have their finger on the pulse of technology, marketplace and their customer’s needs will not survive.
The good news for organizations committed to innovation as a growth strategy is that there are many different ways to innovate. What still stumps some companies, however, is understanding that innovation is not a switch you can flip. Instead, innovation is a process that involves looking at things in an entirely different way.
One specific way this approach comes into play is with something we call “adjacent innovation.” Adjacent innovation involves leveraging thinking from one area of expertise in another as a way of delivering a truly unique and game-changing product, experience, or outcome. The key to getting the most out of adjacent innovation is looking beyond your own backyard. While most companies do a fairly good job of keeping an eye on (tabs on) their close competitors, the organizations that are able to use innovation to leapfrog past the competition are often the ones who cast their net farther afield than their own industry.
Examples of Product Invention and Transformation Through Adjacent Innovation
To give you a quick snapshot of what we mean when we talk about adjacent innovation, let's look at three instances in which this strategy made a world of difference.
SABER, the reservation processing system that we all use to buy airline tickets, was an innovation derived from IBM’s mercury monitor system. Originally developed to support NASA’s race to space by proving a way for computers to talk to each other across long distances, the technology was put to a completely different end purpose after an IBM sales person flying on American Airlines wound up seated next to the president of that aviation company. Before the flight touched down in New York, the seeds of a new idea had been planted that changed air-travel and consumer expectations of service throughout the travel industry..
Often adjacent innovation is influenced not by another company or industry, but by the natural world. This was the case with the trains outside Tokyo. For decades, teams of engineers had been trying to figure out how to solve the problem of the sonic booms caused by trains. They knew that the crux of the problem had to do with turbulence, but the standard aeronautics approach to reducing turbulence wasn’t working. Enter the kingfisher, a bird renowned for its ability to dive into a body water at high speed and leave hardly a ripple in its wake. The key to this stealth-mode fishing strategy turned out to be the shape of the kingfisher’s beak. Once the engineers applied that concept to the train, an entirely new type of train—the bullet train—was born.
Perhaps one of the best-known examples of one industry innovating with ideas borrowed from another is Tesla. Tesla changed the experience of driving a car by applying the principles of best-in-class UI design. They have taken concepts and practices that are familiar in the world of app design and transferred them—with great success—to the entirely different world of automotive design. The result is an entirely different (and differentiated) type of vehicle and driving experience that feel simple and familiar.
The 5 Attributes of an Environment that Encourages Adjacent Innovation
There are five key ingredients that are necessary if you want to create an environment that encourages and facilitates the pursuit of adjacent innovation:
1. Be curious— Be interested and tuned in to what’s happening in the world. And don’t restrict yourself to what’s happening in technology, feel free to get curious about what’s happening in our culture and our daily lives. Be interested enough to keep you finger on the pulse of everything going on around you.
2. Ask “Why?” with no fear — Encourage people to explore a wide variety of adjacent ideas by making sure no one has to worry about asking “stupid” questions. There are no stupid questions. All questions lead somewhere, and that’s the point of asking them.
3. Challenge what you know— Take nothing for granted. Acknowledge that nothing is written in stone. No matter what the data shows or where the market leaders are, there’s innovation to be had. You just need to be willing to look for a better way (and able to recognize it when you see it).
4. Solve for the mindset and the behavior— Product development can get bogged down when it attempts to serve a watered-down customer persona that tries to represent an entire range of customer demographics in a single, one-dimensional persona. Instead, understand that each customer is a complex individual with multiple mindsets and unique behaviors. When you start considering your problem through the different viewpoints of these individuals, all kinds of new solutions present themselves.
5. Look for inspiration everywhere— Finally, this almost goes without saying, but beautiful solutions for complex problems can be found in the most unexpected places. From nature to city planning, you never know where your next genius idea will come from. Keep your eyes open.
In addition to these five attributes, an organization that wants to fully leverage the power of innovation should strive to create an open, trusting environment that encourages divergent ideation. A kind of team that’s best suited to pursuing adjacent innovations is a team made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds and skills. Working with this kind of group ensures that you have multiple entry points into a problem and perspectives on how to solve it.
5 Steps to Integrating Adjacent Innovation into Your Growth Strategy
At this point, most people are sold on the idea of adjacent innovation, and they want to know how to get started. That process is, of course, going to be a little different for each organization, but there are some core steps that apply in almost every case:
1. Define your objectives, audiences, and mindsets— Know who you’re trying to help and exactly which problem you’re trying to solve. Go in depth on how your audience thinks and feels about the issue you’re addressing.
2. Map your current-state experiences— Before you can plan how to get to where you want to be, you need to know where you are. Look at as much data as you can to get a clear and thorough understanding of your starting point. And don’t just take the data at face value; dig in and analyze it.
3. Define the key points of tension within the customer journey— Look with a critical eye at where things break down, where you go astray from your original objective, instances in which you may be trying to fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed. Again, look at the data. Identify where there’s friction.
4. Map the points of tension to other world-class examples outside of your direct competitive set— This is about looking for similar problems. You want to identify the patterns will help you see your own challenges more clearly.
5. Iterate and test in perpetuity— The thing about innovation is that you’re never done innovating. When you launch something, launch day isn’t the last day of your efforts, it’s the first day. Each innovation builds on the last so that you’re always embarking on a new journey to the next new thing.
Now is the time – a world of opportunities awaits.
In today’s world, convergence is all around us and can show up in the least likely places. Adjacent innovation is perfectly designed to take full advantage of all the change that is transforming how we work and play, how we communicate, and how we collaborate. By creating a company culture that is open, diverse, and fearless, you can tap into the vast universe of innovative possibilities that just might have the power to take your organization to amazing new heights.
If you’re ready to explore this idea further, I invite you to check out the Vimeo recording of the webinar that inspired this post. And, of course, if you’d like to learn more about Rightpoint’s digital product capabilities and how they can help you harness your innovative ideas, we’d love to hear from you.