Innovate By Asking Better Questions: A Q&A with Author Stephen Shapiro

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Innovation expert Stephen Shapiro has written five books, including 24/7 Innovation: A Blueprint for Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Change and his most recent, Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition.  Shapiro is also a much-sought-after speaker and consultant in the area of innovation. He’s helped companies such as GE, Microsoft, Marriott, Nike and 3M foster cultures of innovation. I spoke with Shapiro recently about innovation.

Leddy: Why is innovation necessary?
Shapiro: Innovation is necessary because the world is changing around us. If no one else decided to innovate, then we wouldn’t have to. But we have new entrants coming into the market, we have new technologies, we have disruptors, and your competition is constantly changing the game. If you’re not keeping up, you’re actually going backwards. So innovation is necessary, whether you’re a mom-and-pop shop, a middle market company, or a multi-billion dollar Fortune 10 company.

Leddy: How can innovators better understand what customers might want?Shapiro: The best thing you can do is actually observe customers. I would say “be like Indiana Jones,” put on your fedora and get out there to observe. If you look at it from a cultural anthropology or ethnography perspective, you can see what customers are doing and try to figure out what problems they’re having.

Another way is to map the client’s processes. Do you actually understand how the client does business with you? What are the things customers do on a regular basis? Figure out what you can do to improve their processes instead of worrying about your own processes.

Leddy: How should innovators decide where to focus their efforts?
Shapiro: Innovate where you differentiate. You can’t be the best at everything for everybody. The key is to figure out how you differentiate yourself. What is it that makes you special, why do customers do business with you and not with someone else. If you’re trying to replicate what somebody else is doing, that’s not innovation.

So carve out your unique space, play to your strengths, and innovate around those. For everything else that's not your differentiator, you don’t need to be the best,

Leddy: What are the common challenges innovators face?
Shapiro: Innovation just isn’t a natural act for human beings. Our brains are wired for survival rather than innovation. So we want to perpetuate everything we’ve done before because that’s what’s kept us alive. So that's one of the biggest challenges for any company: past success often leads to future failure.

We can also get into grooves that hamper our vision. So say you’re in the hospitality industry, and spend all your time talking to people in the hotel industry and to people inside your company. When someone comes into the industry and disrupts you with a completely different business model, whether it’s an AirBnB for hotels or Uber for taxis or whatever, it catches you off guard because those disruptors aren’t even in your peripheral vision.

Leddy: What can companies do immediately to improve their innovation efforts?
Shapiro: The biggest mistake that companies make is having a solution mindset.  So they'll say, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” The biggest opportunity is to start asking better questions: What is it we’re working on? Why are we working on it? What is it going to produce in terms of value? Einstein reportedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes to define the problem, and one minute finding solutions.” Most companies are spending 60 minutes on problems that don’t matter.

Leddy: How can organizations create a culture that supports innovation?
Shapiro: The key is to have strong leadership in this area. I’ve never seen a company where the leader was sort of ambivalent about innovation and innovation took place. You really need somebody at the top who says, “We need to change. We support change.” A culture of innovation really does come from the top and it has to cascade down, and you also have to have the right organization structures and measures. What gets measured, gets done.

Read the full interview here.

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Chuck Leddy
Chuck Leddy is a humble, intellectually curious, and fast-learning digital content developer/writer in Boston with a focus on employee engagement, leadership, and wellness. As a content developer, he's worked for B2B clients such as ADP, GE, American Express OPEN Forum, Cintas, Office Depot, the National Center for the Middle Market, and more.