Companies & Industries

Innovating Outside the Jar


Corporate culture can distort creativity without innovators realizing it. Luckily there are several telltale signs, and tips to freshen up your perspective

There is a great saying in the South: "You can't read the label when you are sitting inside the jar."

From our experience this saying applies directly to your ability to innovate. If you have been with a company for more than six months, it is time you realize something: You're stuck in the jar. The way you think about new ideas is distorted by the corporate container you find yourself working within.

As a result, it is extremely difficult for you to see the priceless ideas that are all around you, ideas that will become the very new products and services your competitor will use to steal market share and give your boss a reason to question the effectiveness of your whole innovation strategy.

We know, we know. We can't be talking about you. We had the same reaction initially. But if any of the following sounds familiar, you are in the jar??ust like we were. (And fear not, there is a way out, which we will tell you about.)

You know you are in the jar when you hear the following:

"We've tested that idea. It didn't work."

What idea exactly? People who are in the jar interpret ideas based on how they last saw them. In their minds, when they hear about a scooter, they think skateboard, not Segway. When they hear about an auction, they think Sotheby's (BID), not eBay (EBAY). They have literally judged an idea before it has been reenvisioned by the brilliant people around them. Their experience blinds them to the possibilities of the future.

Silence.

When your team is trying to brainstorm new ideas, the room gets eerily quiet. The reality is that they are probably desperately trying to be creative but they keep seeing hurdles. They don't want to appear negative, so they decide to be silent and nod a lot.

"Yes, but??"

Trying to be polite, people will just "but" other people's ideas to death. ("It is a really interesting idea you are proposing, but it will never work because??") This is usually not about intent??hey really want to be helpful??ut they are too busy thinking about regulatory issues, manufacturing issues, political issues, budgetary issues??deadening their ability to be creative. Not only are they in the jar, but the lid is really tight.

An idea for (yet another) safe line extension.

Line extensions and evolutionary innovation should be a large part of your plan. But when that's all your team is producing, it probably means they have lost the ability to recognize big ideas, or worse, they no longer have the fortitude to push the rope up the hill. Even when senior management begs for revolutionary thinking, they already see the outcome?Let's just add a button, a flavor, or a perk and move on."

"Huh?"

If you are often asked by really smart consultants or newcomers to your company what in God's name you are talking about, you're probably in the jar. Seems that after a few months in the jar together, we develop our own language. Often laced with industry-borne acronyms, this strange way of communicating seeps into our customer and client communications. These industry clichés keep our customers from recognizing great innovation.

A few years back we scored big points with about 40 million customers when we convinced a client to change the last line on its monthly billing statement from "Account Balance" to "What you owe." You are surrounded by hundreds of similar examples.

At the root of Zen philosophy is the ability to objectify your situation, to be able to step outside your situation and see it for what it really is—warts and all. So now that you see yourself in the jar, what do you do about it? Following are three simple tips:

1. Get experts from outside your industry to help you stay honest and see what is happening outside the jar.

2. Get outside your office and act like an anthropologist. Spend time with your customer and bring an expert interpreter and a couple members of your team. Compare notes; you will be shocked at how differently you all see the situation.

3. Be very careful about the language you use. In this case, "voice of the customer" should be taken literally. Customers recognize, respond to, and build from their own words more than yours. So use their language when exploring insights, writing concepts, and introducing new products.

Ever notice how a 5-year-old can walk into a situation and ask an innocent question that elicits the "because that's the way we do it" response? Then you realize you've never really questioned why you do it that way? Five-year-olds are too young to be in the jar.

So are you.

G. Michael Maddock is founding partner, and Raphael Louis Vitón is president, of Maddock Douglas, a company that invents, brands, and markets products "for companies driven by innovation." .

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