The secret of innovation? Look to the edges

The secret of innovation? Look to the edges

Businesses and organisations in every sector are under constant – indeed increasing – pressure to innovate. Innovation is the key to securing competitive advantage. To staying ahead of the pack. And in some cases simply to surviving.


The responsibility for innovation and for fostering a culture of innovation falls on leaders. Leaders of teams.Leaders of divisions. Leaders of multi-national corporations. The way leaders build innovation into their day-to-day ways of working and leading can inspire everyone in an organisation to adopt leaner, more innovative working practices.And it can lead those organisations to become disruptors.


We live in the age of disruption, where apparently left-field, unexpected solutions to problems we thought we had licked can creep up on big, established market leaders, to become noisy, irritating challengers. Then they become established. And before you know it, that pesky challenger has eaten the market leader’s lunch, risen to dominance, and oftentimes forced the old guard out of business. In our increasingly digital world, innovation is often driven by early or progressive use of technology. Investment in tech ahead of the curve can set innovative businesses up for success when infrastructure or the democratisation of technology catches up.


Once there was Kodak and everyone took photos on film. Now there are smartphones with smarter cameras and superior optics than most people ever owned, coupled with Instagram andFacebook.

Once there was a Blockbuster in every shopping mall, on every high street, renting a limited number of clunky video cassettes. Now there’s Netflix and Amazon Prime, streaming whatever we want, on demand.


Once there were travel agents –several in every small town. Now there’s AirBnB and


To the outmanoeuvred, to the sluggish establishment, the struggle is knowing how to be different and how to change. It’s as if the innovators rewrote the rules of their sector and didn’t tell anyone. It’s like their upstart competitors really did uncover the secrets of alchemy or worked out how to speed up evolution.


There’s a common misconception that innovation, as a branch of creativity, is only for creative types. Innovation can be stifled by this misconception, by individuals – particularly leaders –fearing they’re going to fail to be innovative because they don’t conform to the stereotype. The truth is, everyone can contribute to the process of innovation within any kind of organisation. They just need to know where to look and how to access and channel their creative instincts.


Some organisations allocate special times – and even dedicated creative spaces – for innovation. They get together for creative sessions – rigidly scheduled once a month – and have no-idea-too-silly, blue sky, ideation sessions where dozens of ideas bubble to the surface. They’re captured on flip-charts and PostIts today, typed up on PowerPoint next week, by which time even the idea’s originator can’t quite remember why they were so excited about it. Too often, leaders throw out radical new ideas and stick within their comfort zone – with innovations they know how to make real and how to get approved. But innovations that fundamentally fail to challenge the status quo.


An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.” – Vilfredo Pareto – the originator of the 80/20 rule


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to this process per se – or at least the intent to innovate that lies behind it. But too often none of the ideas developed in this kind of environment are ever made real. They’re not anchored, they’re not followed through, and once the monthly creative session is over, everyone goes back to their day jobs. It’s as if the team and organisational leaders encouraging them are paying lip service to innovation.


What’s more, the blue-sky approach actively excludes introverts. Developing ideas in public, by group-think, isn’t how they function best. It’s not how their minds work. They often feel uncomfortable in ideation meetings because they need the time and space to reflect. So that’s approaching half your team unwilling and unable to contribute. What’s more, social psychology shows that this approach is a much less effective way of generating new ideas – the key to unlocking innovations – than smaller, more focused, less chaotic groups of three or four.


As often, having a framework – some structure – gives teams the freedom to innovate. It’s a paradox, but an incredibly powerful one, that constraints don’t constrain, they liberate. And the framework I’ve found to be most impactful for leaders looking to help their teams become more innovative is what I call look to the edges. By looking for inspiration outside the mainstream – to the fringes of a market or society – you can very often find inspiration and stimulus to help you unlock the imperative to innovate in the mainstream.


“Curiosity is essential for progress. Only when we look to worlds beyond our own can we really know if there's room for improvement.” –Simon Sinek, author, Start With Why


Truly effective leaders know that leadership isn’t just about dealing with what’s in front of you. It’s about scanning the horizon for what’s to come. Like being a good driver or to win at chess, you need to look ahead and consider what might be. Those who are really good are often said to be able to see around corners. Looking straight ahead uses focused, foveal vision; looking to the edges brings peripheral vision into play.


Trends that are today considered weird or wacky or out there have a funny – and actually quite predictable – habit of going mainstream:


·      Health food shops in the 1970s were seen as the preserve of sandal-wearing hippies. Last year in England, Brighton’s own Infinity Foods won an Observer Food Monthly award as one of the country’s best independent retailers. Veganism was the province of the social outcast 20 years ago. Now it’s worth billions. Recently, the British frozen foods supermarket Iceland has introduced a dozen new vegan ranges. In Brooklyn, NY, sales of oat milk are now higher than sales of cow’s milk, and recently the district ran out of oat milk.

·      For generations since the 1950s, disposable nappies were the only way to care for infants. The return to washable nappies in the 1990s was treated with some contempt. Why go back to all the hard work & inconvenience?  And yet millennial parents are now embracing them almost as closely as their offspring. As is often the case with an idea that comes back into use a few generations down the line, the washable nappies experience of today bears little resemblance to the cloth nappies experience of yesteryear.  

·      Three years ago, every juice box had a single-use plastic straw strapped to it, usually in a single-use plastic wrapper. Today, you’d be hard pushed to find plastic straws in many supermarkets and cafés. They’re more likely to be made of paper or even pasta.

·      The explosion of the coffee shops across the world, from a late 20th century buzz in Washington State, is extraordinary. Perhaps even more extraordinary is the move by consumers to bring their own, reusable cups – nicely incentivised by money off per coffee – to their neighbourhood coffee shop.

·      Music (particularly record, then CD, and also DVD) collections used to confer status on their owners. For Generation Z (aka Centennials or the iGeneration), owning physical copies of media is anathema. Why would you ever own a CD, when you can stream it from Spotify, Deezer, and Apple Music? Why would you own a DVD of your favourite film when you can stream it from Netflix? Vinyl may be making a strong, sound-quality-driven comeback, but even that is an innovation from the edge, from DJ culture.


Looking to the edge means having the curiosity to look to the margins of society. Of not being afraid of offbeat ideas, and embracing them as part of your business or organisational scenario planning. Fundamentally, looking to the edge is about being curious and encouraging a culture of curiosity. Of broadening your worldview to take in apparently irrelevant, not immediately obvious sources of stimulus, joining them together with what you already know, and creating something new.


So, as you look around you, on your way in or out of work or travelling between meetings, be sure you’re alert to all the creativity and innovation you could capture and harness that’s happening at the edges. Be sure to look there and learn to take inspiration from the most unexpected of places.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

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