The Innovation Engine: Connectivity

In innovation-land, it's not enough to be smart. Connections with outside experts can lead to industry-changing products

Sure, you have smart people. But so does the company down the street. Simply being smart doesn't give you an edge. It's just the price of entry if you want to come up with new products that will keep you ahead of the competition.

To do that, you must move beyond smart.

The best, most innovative companies are discovering that expert connections are the new currency of innovation. A company's capacity to create industry-changing products and services is directly tied to its ability to forge connections efficiently between big brains both throughout the company and around the world.

It turns out the old networking cliché is also true when it comes to innovation: It's not what you know, but who you know.

Next time, we will talk about unleashing the power of your in-house experts—people who may not even think of themselves in those terms. But for now let's talk about why you want to forge alliances with those who don't use the company parking lot.

Outside Experts

Two of the benefits of infusing outside experts into your innovation process are obvious: You access additional expertise, and you generate momentum. (There is nothing like introducing your smart people to someone else's to spark all kinds of ideas.)

But there are other benefits that get overlooked. For one thing, you gain objectivity. If you have been with a company for a while, you are not objective. Someone from the outside can say the atomic-powered buggy whip that the R&D people are in love with is simply not going to work. In addition, those outsiders can give you a different perspective you may desperately need.

Here's an example. For years oral-care companies have relied on dentists to help fill their innovation pipelines. These companies cut their teeth (pun intended) in the professional channels, so naturally they believe dentists know more about oral care than anyone. After all, dentists spend their days talking to people about teeth, looking at teeth, thinking about teeth. So, if "four out of five" dentists think a new product idea is good, it must be, right?

Not necessarily. The world has changed. When you ask people about their mouths today, it turns out they don't talk much about cavities. They talk about sparkly teeth and fresh breath. The mouth is no longer just about dental health, it's about image. Stopping cavities is a must-have, not a game changer.

Seeing Through a Different Lens

If you are looking to create innovation in oral care, you need to see it through the lens of aestheticians, stylists, and fashion experts. You need to forge relationships with people in all those fields to gain insights about what a toothbrush should deliver today.

The key, then, is you must really understand the needs of your consumer&what is it they want your product to do&and then find experts who see these needs differently.

Consider something as seemingly pedestrian as furniture polish. Think about what it does. It cleans, protects, and restores. Now, what other things do that? Well, lawn-care and skin-care products are the first two that come to mind.

Armed with this realization, how do you gain another perspective? You could forge all kinds of formal relationships with other companies, but you don't have to do that. You can simply call someone at a lawn-care or cosmetic company and ask to pick their brains.

From Connections to Inspiration

Everyone loves to be seen as an expert. Think about it. Isn't it flattering when someone asks you: "Can you help me?" Ask those people: "What opportunities do you see? What are the emerging trends?"

You aren't a competitor, so odds are they will help, especially when you offer to share what you have learned with them. You want to create these kinds of partnerships to spur new thinking and draw connections to things you might not think are related.

Examples of how connections can create innovation are all around us. The drive-in movie inspired the drive-in bank, the ballpoint pen led to roll-on deodorant, and nature inspired Velcro—we just named it the cocklebur first.

To paraphrase innovation guru Roger von Oech, "connection is the father of conception." Start connecting.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.