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Redefining Innovation

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What is innovation? Like so many in today’s culture of life-changing technology, we expect innovations to be big, revolutionary products. David Robertson, Professor of Management at the Wharton School of Business and author of the book Brick by Brick, sat down with IMTSTV to talk about redefining innovation and the big impact of small ideas.

What do we consider innovative? Compare Apple’s iTunes and iPod, released in the early 2000’s, to the SpinPop automated spinning lollipop. Both products were released around the same time, yet each represents a vastly different level of simplicity. Robertson tells us that innovation isn’t limited to big ideas, he says, “The more I study innovation, the more humbled I am by the power of a small idea.” Who could imagine that something as simple as a spinning lollipop would turn into half a billion dollars in profit for its inventors when it became the concept behind the electric toothbrush?

But redefining innovation is more than just finding these small ideas; it’s about recognizing the many forms that these small innovative ideas can take. Robertson says, “A lot of companies ignore those little improvements not just to products, but to services, to customer experience, to the business model, and to the channel of the market. All those things together can be much lower risk but much higher impact.” Companies today find it easier to focus on creating the next big thing rather than maintaining their iconic, decade-old brands. The key is to find a balance between the big ideas and small innovations.

Robertson’s book, Brick by Brick, focuses on Lego. Lego’s experimentation with all types of innovation has made them a stand out example of the ups and downs of innovative ideas, big and small. Robertson says that for decades Lego focused on creating the next big idea with their products. Their ambition, while it worked for a while, almost ran them out of business. Since then, they have tried more ways than you can imagine to innovate and experiment to create the next big play experience with their toys. It all comes down to one amazingly simple idea: sell a box of bricks. Lego’s focus on making these plastic bricks irresistible to kids has helped them to propel their business beyond selling a simple box of ABS plastic. Robertson says that what is so fascinating about Lego is that “they’re surrounding it with a whole complimentary set of innovations.” From games and stories, to new age online applications and movies, Lego has created a world of irresistible temptation.

Unlike direct end user products like Lego that can be built and marketed around a lifestyle, the manufacturing technology industry has to find other ways to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation. Robertson says that manufacturing technology companies have “an obligation” to stay ahead of the innovation curve. By combining expert knowledge about the inner workings of manufacturing with a heightened sense of the constantly-evolving technology innovations that surround them, manufacturing companies can become “full service sets of information” that can better serve their customers’ needs. By successfully managing and executing a commitment to broad innovation, you can stay ahead of the competition and create a better, more successful business.

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