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Think Outside the Goggles!

Fashion and safety goggles.

You won’t see these words used very often in the same sentence. Unless you happen to be a $2 billion manufacturer of personal safety apparel. In which case, they go together quite nicely.

When I worked for the world’s most valuable brand, every year the chief marketing officer would fly to Paris to attend one of the major fashion shows. His goal was to pick up on all the different colors, styles, and looks on display. When I asked what those things had to do with our product, he replied, “It all depends on how you look at it.”

I often pondered and finally learned to adapt his approach. In today’s world, one of the best ways to foster innovation in our organizations is to pick up on trends in other spaces and apply them to our own. I sometimes call it looking at things with a “cold eye.” The less you know about something, the more likely you are to see new ideas.

For example, a few years ago I worked with a $2 billion personal protection company to help create their strategic plan. This company made safety goggles, respiratory masks, earplugs, and other safety products worn by individuals at work. Their goggles were strong and durable, but ugly as sin and uncomfortable to wear (think about those clear plastic, one size does not fit anyone goggles worn in many factories). Sales had recently gone flat, and management called me in to see if we could determine innovative new approaches and products in their markets.

This company had a long track record of success. Managers were very set in their ways. And they were certain they knew what their customers wanted. Clearly the time had come to think outside the goggles!

During the planning process I asked them to do two things: take a look at the fashion industry, and learn more about their customers. They agreed to both, although with a fair amount of skepticism, and began researching the fashion industry to come up with some ideas on how to improve their goggles.

In doing so, they found that the majority of people wearing safety goggles at work were women. More important, they found that their customers wanted more than just to protect their eyes. They also wanted to look good and feel comfortable while wearing the goggles.

Keep in mind that this was a stodgy, male-oriented company whose leaders had been in manufacturing forever. They knew how to build quality goggles to protect the eyes. But they never dreamed that something else might matter to their customers — until they asked.

To their credit, they took what they learned and embedded it into a new line of fashionable safety goggles. To their surprise, sales increased dramatically the following year.

Had this company looked only within their industry, they might have never discovered those unmet customer needs. By changing their perspective and looking for ideas in other places, those needs became obvious. And by looking at an industry that seemingly had no connection with theirs, they came up with several good ideas for improving their products and adding more value to their customers.

The moral of this story is two-fold. One, never (and I mean never!) assume that we know everything about our customers or deeply understand them just because we have been successful selling them the same thing for decades. And two, as our world grows ever more complex and interconnected, we need to develop the habit of looking at new sources of information to prompt our own brains to consider innovative possibilities. Specifically, we need to:

  • Broaden the scope of where we look for ideas, information, and opportunities
  • Let go of old “truths” and see the world from a fresh perspective
  • Learn to see patterns where others don’t (or at least spot them before anyone else does)
  • Find ways to take what others are already doing (in seemingly disparate sectors) and adapt it to our way of doing business

No problem, right?

Actually it is a problem. Otherwise we would all be featured on the cover of Time Magazine as the next Steve Jobs. The former head of Apple was certainly an innovative thinker in his own right. But what he did better than anyone else was to look at what already existed in the world and put things together in ways that no one else had considered. He also excelled at figuring out what customers wanted before they knew it themselves.

Jobs had an intuitive gift for seeing what others didn’t see. But this ability to “look outside the goggles” is a skill that all business leaders can (and should) learn. Stay tuned next week for some tools and techniques to help you develop this critical leadership skill.

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