Companies & Industries

How Boredom Can Drive Innovation


Next time your mind drifts, take some notes on what catches your eye, says Harvard blogger Scott Anthony

Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 12, 2011 8:30 AM

Our eyes are underrated innovation tools. It's easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of activities and miss opportunities that are literally right in front of your face. Make a regular habit of just standing and watching. You may be surprised by what you see.

Here's how it worked for me recently. This Monday, I was in Mumbai conducting market research with a project team. A couple of my colleagues were interviewing a consumer on the street in a pretty well-to-do neighborhood. The interview was in Hindi and we didn't want to slow it down with simultaneous translation.

Instead of being a bored bystander, I started just looking around, watching for things that I found surprising. My eyes wandered to a small pharmacy shop. Over a 20 minute period, I jotted down the following observations:

The shop had a pharmacy license, but the picture on the license bore no resemblance to the people dispensing medicine (who couldn't have been older than 25). I later learned that the people manning the shop were related to the license owner but had no formal training in drug dispensing.

Traffic was high — about 15 customers stopped by during 20 minutes. It seemed like the pharmacist knew most customers.

One consumer received two pills. One way that consumers compensate for relatively low purchasing power is to purchase medicine literally by the dose.

The front of the pharmacy was bursting with Procter & Gamble products, with brands such as Always, Pampers, and Gillette visibly displayed. There also was a rack with about 30 different drinks. Most of the drinks were Pepsi brands, but the two people who stopped to buy drinks both bought Coca-Cola.

At one point, a distributor came to refill the stock. The distribution vehicle was a bicycle, and the distributor carried the stock in a small plastic bag.

The pharmacist took inventory by glancing over his shoulder at what he had on the shelf. The shop's small retail footprint means there is no "back of the store" and certainly no sophisticated inventory management software. The only machine in the shop was a small solar-powered calculator. Everything else was paper-based.

Two Tata Nanos drove down the street, both driven by young, seemingly well-to-do drivers on their own (not the relatively poor families that Ratan Tata had hoped to move off of unsafe scooters).

These observations weren't closely connected with my client work, but they did help to provide local context and might ultimately spur thoughts about opportunities for innovation.

In their 2009 award-winning Harvard Business Review article, "The Innovator's DNA" (soon to be a book), Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen discussed how successful innovators tend to be careful observers. "Discovery-driven executives produce uncommon business ideas by scrutinizing common phenomena, particularly the behavior of potential customers," they wrote. "In observing others, they act like anthropologists and social scientists."

The moment when someone is choosing, purchasing, or using a product can be a great vehicle for learning. (But make sure you have something that allows you to easily capture notes. I jotted the list above down on a notepad and snapped a few pictures on my iPhone.)

To sum up, remember some advice I learned from Innosight Director and noted author Richard Foster: "Don't just do something. Stand there."

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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