Innovating like a genius.

Are you looking at what’s really missing?

The best way to drive rapid growth in any organisation is not through slogging it out with the established competition. It is through creating new markets where there’s no competition, or by upending existing markets with innovations that make everyone else there irrelevant.

This is disruptive innovation, and it is, by definition, based on creating something new. Not something similar, rebadged, repackaged, and relaunched. Something new. Something we’ve not seen before.

I know, that’s easy for me to say, not so easy to do. But a big part of that is because we waste far too much time coming from the wrong perspective. That’s why the things we call innovation tend to overwhelmingly be just incremental additions, another variant, product upgrade, slightly different format.

I’m not denigrating the incremental – a lot of work often goes into it. Take Apple’s new iPhone mini. The developers have had to come up with a whole bunch of mini innovations to pack that much punch into that sized format. But fundamentally, it is not an innovative product.

To the consumer, it’s the same thing in a different box. It may appeal to a slightly different niche, but it’s fragmenting Apple’s existing market rather than building a new one. It’s a classic example of diminishing returns: the innovation of the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. Whatever genius it took to design, the impact will be negligible.

The genius has been wasted, because disruptive innovation is where the big growth opportunity is, where the real return on that investment in time, money, and energy will come from. And disruptive innovation can become a whole lot easier if we just learn to look from a different perspective.

Back in the 1990’s when I was in a tech role, I used to dream about the day when I didn’t have to cart a big paper pad and a set of paper folders around to every meeting. I thought, if someone came up with an A4 or even A5 sized device that I could write on, that I could use to store my notes by project, to easily find, add to and amend my notes from previous meetings without having to rifle back through my files every time, that it would be amazing.

When Apple finally came out with the tablet and pencil combo, I was the first in the queue. For me, it had been clear for years what I was missing. That’s the perspective you need.

There’s an old parlour game with a tray or a table full of objects covered with a cloth. The cloth is removed and, for a minute or two, you’re invited to look at what’s there. If the game were simply for you to add something that fitted in one of the gaps between objects, it would be easy – we could all think of a million things to add to the tray. But that’s not the game. You turn away, an object is removed, and then you turn back.

It might be straightforward to spot the gap that’s appeared if none of the other objects have been moved. But it’s much harder to actually tell what’s missing. Anyone can see what’s there. It takes a lot more effort to see what’s not there.

But learning to see what’s really, really missing is the key to disruptive innovation. And you can’t do that by looking at what’s there; at the gaps in your range – all you’ll see are the spaces between products, and the game you’ll end up playing is the simplest one – what else can we fit on the tray?

To seize the big prize, to play the real game, you have to start by looking for what’s genuinely missing, not in your portfolio, but in your customers’ lives. That’s the perspective you need to come from. That’s where disruptive innovation lives.

So, here’s my challenge. Ask yourself these questions and be honest:

How much of your growth plan is slugging it out in the market, or filling the gaps on the tray in front of you, rather than the much bigger, more valuable gaps in your customers lives?

And how much of your time and effort, across the organisation, are your people spending managing what they can see, rather than trying to see what’s genuinely missing?

In the words of Schopenhauer, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

If you want genius-level innovation, start by asking yourself, where could you transform your customers’ lives for the better? Where are the targets that no one else can see?