Engaging in observations is a key behavior of successful innovators. How can you become a better observer?
- So a second trigger for new ideas after questioning is observing. IDEO, the innovation design firm, often likes to say that innovation begins with an eye, literally an eye, because you're out observing and trying to understand something that maybe others haven't understood before. So Tom Kelley, the general manager at IDEO, tells a story about how IDEO decided to work with a company that made toothbrushes, and they were trying to figure out how to make a better kids' toothbrush.
So they decided to go out in the field and observe kids brushing their teeth. And what they noticed right away was that the kids' toothbrushes were designed very much lie the parents', just smaller and skinnier. And basically every kids' toothbrush in the history of the world was just a smaller, skinnier version of the parents' toothbrush. And then they watched kids try to use this toothbrush, and they found they didn't have the fine motor skills to manipulate it very well, so they thought, "What if we could make the kids' toothbrush fatter, "squishier, easier to maneuver for a young kid?" And that led to a revolutionary sort of toothbrush for kids, and now it kind of dominates the market.
This sort of toothbrush is what every kid tends to use today. So that observation was the beginning of a surprise, a surprise that all toothbrushes have been made the same. And second, that kids really don't have the fine motor skills to effectively manipulate those toothbrushes. One of the things we've learned over the years in our research is that observing is easier to do if it's encouraged and supported by your leader, your team leader, or your organization.
And some organizations are actually pretty good at creating opportunities for observing. For example, at Toyota, in every plant there's a cord, it's called an Andon cord, that can be pulled if someone sees a problem. And so if you observe a problem, you pull the cord, and then leaders in the plant converge on the problem, they observe what's going on, and they jointly problem solve through observing. That makes it easy to observe.
At Procter & Gamble, they use a different technique of creating an opportunity to observe by doing employee swaps with other companies. And so they'll send their HR employees or their marketing employees to Google for four to six weeks to just go observe to see how they do things and see if there are any ideas that they could bring back to Procter & Gamble. In fact, I remember one P&G employee talking about the fact that they learned some really important things about digital marketing at Google that they just didn't understand at Procter & Gamble, and this was specifically about how to identify mommy bloggers so that they could then target mommy bloggers and educate them whenever they were coming out with a new product for moms.
If you want to become a better observer, it's important to spend more time doing it, obviously. Let me first of all just quickly remind you of what you're looking for. You're looking for surprises. And you're also trying to understand, what is the job that whoever you're observing is trying to get done? If it's a customer, it could be a functional job. It could be a social job. It could be an emotional job. We're going to talk about jobs theory a little bit later when we get to the innovator's method. But you're really trying to understand the jobs that customers are trying to get done in their lives.
And so surprises and jobs are two things that are really important to look for. And then you need to spend more time observing in what I call the three C's, customers, competitors, and countries. If you can find opportunities to actually go out and watch customers or end users of your output, it can make a difference in your understanding of how it gets used and why it's not as good as it could be. I mean, even if you're in a finance organization, you should probably go out and observe people when they get your finance reports and watch them use them and flip through them and see whether there are things that they raise their eyebrows and they don't understand, or why did they give us this? So you should be observing folks who use your output, whether it's inside a company or outside.
Customers are really important. Second, competitors or companies, other companies, are really important to observe in terms of looking for really new ideas, different ways to do things. Again, it could be competitors, but it may be it's just Amazon is doing some amazing things, let's go watch Amazon, let's go observe Amazon and see if there's anything they're doing that we could bring back to our organization to help us to be more effective. Or maybe Tesla or any sort of new company that seems to be transforming or revolutionizing an industry.
Those are great companies to go observe. And finally, putting yourself in a new country really makes you a little more sensitive to looking for new things because things are different in different countries. This will help you become more attuned to your environment. And one of the things we've learned from our research is that if you've lived in two or more countries for six months or longer, you're twice as likely to be an innovator, meaning coming up with a brand new innovative new business or a new product or a new process.
So put yourself in new environments and countries, competitors, other companies, and watch customers. And as you do that, you'll hone and develop your observing skills to come up with new ideas.