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'Relentless Innovation'

To expand your business, you must look beyond simply innovating new products, which competitors can easily imitate or replicate. Instead, embrace a new approach we term “relentless innovation:” a push to innovate every aspect of a business, including customer relationships, talent development, and business processes, all in pursuit of a marketplace edge. So how does one transform from a great-when-it-happens innovator to a relentless one?

Ask yourself the following three questions.

1. Where are you bored? If you’re looking at the business and not finding pizzazz and spark, chances are that employees and customers aren’t feeling it either. Leaders need to rethink unexamined or “automated” ways of doing business.

For example, in spite of the company’s national scale, shoppers at Trader Joe’s love the specialty store format, with a curated selection of quality, healthful items (and twice the profitability per square foot of competitors who have 10 times the product selection). ESPN is experimenting with new technology that enables 3D live sports coverage and new field perspectives to deliver a better viewer experience. Amazon (AMZN) innovated customer loyalty with the introduction of Amazon Prime, which offers free and discounted shipping and other benefits in return for a yearly fee. (Prime customers increase their buying by an estimate 150%). No one would call any of these businesses boring.

Tip: Ask this question in a management meeting and apply it to your most relied-upon lines of business, top five customers, people strategy, and supply-and-distribution channels. Follow your instinct when places to innovate emerge.

2. Where are things normal? Mastering a business means learning its rules and background presumptions. At the same time, creating new ways to differentiate your organization within the market requires the ability to transform these “normals” into new customer realities. It all starts with identifying the belief systems that guide planning and decisionmaking and asking questions about the ways things are always done.

For example, instead of following the typical approach that residential customers should cover the steep upfront cost of solar-heat system installation, fast-growing SolarCity decided to install the equipment with no requirement for initial money down. They then maintain the system and lease to homeowners for a cost lower than that of their old electric bill.

Tip: Assign five cross-functional groups to identify everything they see as normal around the business. Anything that seems just “the way it is” makes for a good place to start. To create innovation areas, exchange findings among groups and engage them to create new solutions.

3. What is impossible? Businesses often miss opportunities to innovate in places where ideas look implausible. If an idea doesn’t fit the frame you’re operating in, it’s easy to discard or altogether miss it. Searching out what is impossible for your organization doesn’t mean it can’t be done—it may be only a matter of making new connections and taking a stand for building new realities.

For instance, Diageo (DEO) launched the premium scotch whisky the John Walker in 2009, in the midst of the recession, at $3,000 a bottle. The launch countered a typical rule of investing: not introducing high-priced brands when the economy has started to fall apart. Yet sales numbers have far exceeded anyone’s expectations.

Tip: Poll your primary customer-interaction people within the organization to find out what customers are asking for that everyone thinks is impossible. Take it further by systematically engaging customers on a regular basis regarding what they think is impossible to have—but would delight them if it were a reality.

The good news? Relentless Innovation is a state of mind accessible to all levels of the organization. It’s not just the “creative types” in a special department, but a whole organization full of relentless innovators creating new realities together. Once you build this mindset into the organization, it simply becomes a matter of freeing up people to implement ideas.

Pontish Yeramyan founded the consulting firm Gap International in 1978. She serves on the board of directors for the Fund for Armenian Relief and has consulted via the Wharton Schools Applied Research Center. Yeramyan received a B.A. in psychology and linguistics from Barnard College and an M.A. in linguistics from Michigan State University. You can follow her on Twitter.

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