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April 17, 2014

Innovation Happens Outside Your Comfort Zone

Posted by Puneet Gupta (View Profile | View All Posts) at 5:53 AM

Verizon Labs; Where Innovation Happens [Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frUJqfRDBJI]

Sometimes we need an event to jar ourselves out of our comfort zones. For me, the sad and tragic saga of a passenger airliner that was apparently lost over a remote stretch of ocean was just that sort of event. For more than a month now, much of the world has been perplexed by how something so large and technologically advanced could seemingly vanish into thin air. Up until very recently, search and rescue officials hadn't the slightest clue as to what happened to the large jet with hundreds of passengers onboard - most of them owning and operating mobile communications devices.

The reason this event served as a kind of wake-up call to me was that it showed the limits of the Information Age. As digital consumers, we carry smart phones that can ping a retailer and let it know where in a grocery store we are, and whether we are browsing, say, laundry detergent or tomatoes. Based on that instant geographical information, the store can then text us with a coupon for a certain kind of tomato or announce a two-for-one special on our favorite detergent.

The trend is such that mobile consumers are never out of touch with the retailers and other consumer-minded enterprises - including airlines - that serve them. It's pretty difficult for anyone to fly under the proverbial radar. So the fact that a large jet did just that for a significant amount of time indicates that we still have a long way to go in perfecting the ways we use data to pinpoint locations (and, for that matter, consumer preferences).

One of the world's largest search engines recently announced it would be acquiring a manufacturer of unmanned, solar-powered drones. The extension into aerospace might seem strange for an Internet search engine. But when you consider what unmanned drones could do - beaming Internet signals into the remotest places on earth - the investment doesn't seem like such a stretch. If a search engine controls access to the Internet in the first place, it can define what kind of customer experience those recipients will have.

The fact that Internet companies are branching out into aerospace and even financial services suggests that innovators never rest. They don't like to be pigeonholed into an industry or sector and are constantly thinking of ways to monetize new lines of business. My hunch is that the great innovators don't like resting on their laurels because doing so puts them in a comfort zone that usually means they've run out of ideas.

I think they're onto something. Comfort zones can give otherwise driven entrepreneurs a false sense of security. There is a large department store in North America, J.C. Penney, that has management gurus lining up to explain what went wrong with the store's recent rebranding efforts. One of main hypotheses is that this department store was run by executives who never allowed themselves to leave their comfort zones. Some of these very bright and driven people had come to the venerable department store from Apple, where they were responsible for creating a retail experience like no other. Why couldn't the same course of action work to turn around a middle-class American clothing store?

At one point, members of the board of directors urged the new team to take their time and test their retail assumptions. But according to recent reports, the former Apple executives forged ahead. Testing a program or strategy might have taken them out of their comfort zone. Well, you can guess what happened: The strategy that worked for Apple's retail stores didn't work for the department chain. Of the many things they did wrong in hindsight, one thing was to separate the online business from the physical stores. So when a loyal customer browsed online for a shirt and found it in five colors, she might not find even two or three of the colors in the bricks-and-mortar store. A total disconnect that ultimately caused the store to implode.

The good news is that a new executive team is reviving the store's fortunes, in part because they are listening to consumers and making the online operation work in tandem with the physical outlets. They're making new and lasting connections with modern, digital consumers and are never afraid to test their assumptions. Because if there's one thing we've learned about running a complex and ever-changing digital enterprise, it's that we should never assume we have everything figured out. It's good to leave our comfort zones.

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