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How To Effectively Innovate Under Pressure

I recently had a conversation with a local retailer, struggling to generate sales through this pandemic. They were exhausted and stretched thin. They had been through the ups and downs of managing cleaning, metering patrons, to having to move their entire business online. Still, sales were continuing to slump.

Knowing that survival depended upon having an online presence, they went all in. They set up a full e-commerce website. They set up Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest presences. They posted multiple times a day. They boosted posts. Yet, things were still looking bleak. The discussion centered on one question – “What should we be doing that we’re not doing?”

The problem actually was, they were doing too many tactics without strategic innovation. This is a common issue, especially when the pressure is on. We naturally react with urgency and often start taking action with those things we believe will generate a direct line to revenue – primarily marketing tactics.

However, their breadth of tactical activities underway had little depth. They were overlooking the concept of first principles. First-principles thinking can be easy to describe, but quite difficult to practice. One of the primary obstacles to first principles thinking is our tendency to optimize form rather than function. The story of the suitcase provides a perfect example.

In ancient Rome, soldiers used leather messenger bags and satchels to carry food while riding across the countryside. At the same time, the Romans had many vehicles with wheels like chariots, carriages, and wagons. And yet, for thousands of years, nobody thought to combine the bag and the wheel. The first rolling suitcase wasn’t invented until 1970 when Bernard Sadow was hauling his luggage through an airport and saw a worker rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid.

This is exactly the gap the retailer was overlooking – they were focusing on form (all the digital platforms) rather than function (what their strategy was going to be with them, in other words, their purpose). And this mental shift is the source of real innovation, where you can create a new approach or idea that will catapult growth.

Because they were hyper-focused on tactics, they were overlooking the opportunity for disruption – more specifically, a strategy. They were looking to the tools perceived to ‘guarantee traffic’ which in turn would ‘guarantee sales’. But this approach was exactly what their competitors were doing, but the belief was that they didn’t have to do anything different or unique but still have unique success persisted.

They needed to think strategically and innovate. We all have innovation envy – where we want to achieve stellar success. But true innovation doesn’t come with proof.

No new idea in the history of the world has been proven in advance analytically.

You can’t prove something new and different that hasn’t happened yet. While proof provides comfort, it rarely yields amazing results. In addition, new ideas provide no proof they’re going to work, so if you’re not willing to tolerate failure, you won’t ever accomplish anything that will truly disrupt or catapult your business.

So instead of following the herd, it’s about narrowing the scope. Being great at a few things – and being creative and innovative with them. Building a strategy around how you’ll stand out, be different, and be distinct. And with the continuing pressure with the ongoing pandemic, there’s no time (or resources) to waste.

About the Author

Andrea Olson is a speaker, author, behavioral economics, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers and No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing.

She is a 4-time ADDY® award winner and host of the popular Customer Mission podcast. Her thoughts have been continually featured in news sources such as Chief Executive MagazineEntrepreneur MagazineThe Financial BrandIndustry Week, and more. Andrea is a sought-after keynote speaker at conferences and corporate events throughout the world. She is a visiting lecturer and Director of the Startup Business Incubator at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, a TEDx presenter, and TEDx speaker coach. She is also a mentor at the University of Iowa Venture School.

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