Not long ago, I stood on a pier near Cape Canaveral, Florida and watched a SpaceX rocket launch.
People were wearing SpaceX t-shirts and talking excitedly. SpaceX has brought the thrill back into space exploration.
Founder Elon Musk figured that by developing a way to reuse rockets, just like airplanes, he could reduce the cost of travel to space by a factor of a hundred.
He’s well on his way to achieving that. The company created the first commercial spacecraft in history to shuttle cargo to and from the International Space Station, and has already cut the cost of launching into space to less than a tenth of its prior level.
His ultimate goal, however, is to colonize Mars, making human life inter-planetary.
I recently met with the leaders of a highly successful company. Sales growth, which had been strong for years, was headed into negative territory. They were desperate to find the next “big idea” that would put their company on track for future growth.
As they discussed potential innovations, the same tired, incremental ideas that had been tossed around for years kept resurfacing.
What they needed was something to shake up their thinking.
These managers had been so busy delivering product, serving customers, dealing with people issues, managing the budget and attending meetings, that they had focused all their attention inward. They hadn’t looked outside their industry for new ideas in months, or even years. As a result, their thinking was stale and uninspired.
When you want to develop breakthrough ideas, try looking at companies outside of your industry to fuel new thinking. If you are in healthcare, look at technology or consumer products companies. If you are a services company, look at manufacturers. You get the idea.
Pick one company, and list what’s intriguing, controversial, new or different about it. Be specific about what you observe, and then ask: “How might we apply this idea in our own company?”
An industrial products business, for example, looked at Walmart as an exemplar, even though the two companies are in different industries and are of vastly different size.
The smaller company observed how Walmart has made its store-brand Ol’ Roy dog food the bestselling brand in the world, and decided to explore the idea of offering private-label products. It observed how Walmart has standardized apparel sizes across many different clothing suppliers, and decided to simplify and standardize its product sizes, so customers could more easily specify and buy what they needed.
When I suggested “looking outside your industry” in a blog post a few weeks ago, readers contributed how they had:
Found new ideas for an aerospace company by looking at consumer products technology trends.
Developed a new hotel concept after looking at the consumer and employee experience across brands like Starbucks, Harley Davidson and Quick-Trip.
Applied ideas from investigative journalism to sales training.
Employed GM and Toyota product positioning and pricing ideas within an information services company.
Next time you want to develop new ideas for performance improvement and growth, look at companies in completely different industries than your own. Be specific about what you observe, and then think about the implications for your own company.
Don’t fall victim to the temptation to add features, services, products, and markets every year. Consider how you can differentiate by taking away features IKEA is one of my favorite examples. They broke with tradition by eliminating features that were standard fare in other furniture stores. They took away in-store service, delivery and assembly. The stores are almost entirely self-service, but IKEA provides a distinctive, enjoyable shopping experience by offering clever, inspiring displays and ready availability of tape measures and note pads. You feel almost as if you’ve visited an amusement park.
Shoppers have to carry the products home themselves, but IKEA packages them into compact boxes that fit easily into a vehicle. Assembly is also a job performed by customers, but IKEA’s simple, stick-figure instructions make it fun, like assembling a LEGO toy (the Journal of Psychology reports that customers like their product more, and are even willing to pay more if they assemble their IKEA product themselves – amazing!). Our first experience with this was when we lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and we brought home a new dresser and assembled it with our young daughter. This created an enduring and positive family memory–tied indelibly to the IKEA brand.
While other furniture stores emphasize the durability and timelessness of their products, IKEA makes us think of furniture as a fashion accessory, something we can use for a while, and then replace. By taking away features, IKEA creates a compelling customer experience, and keeps prices amazingly low.