Innovation doesn’t need to be difficult

Does innovation need to be mind-blowing and extraordinary? Or can it be subtle? Does innovation even need to be innovative?

I can almost see you now, rolling your eyes and wanting to punch me for asking what appears to be such an obvious and seemingly thoughtless question. Of course, you need to be innovative in order to create innovations, right? But if you think about it long enough, I think you’ll see the question has some merit: Innovation is the introduction of something new – and the introduction of something new can be viewed from different perspectives, some obviously innovative and others not so obvious.

Some innovations are like shooting for the moon.

Most people are familiar with the CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, and aware that Tesla makes fully electric vehicles that have self-driving capabilities. I recently drove a Model X Tesla between Palm Springs, California, and Los Angeles. I turned on “autopilot” and marveled as the car took over, controlling acceleration, deceleration and steering. That in itself was pretty amazing; sitting in the driver’s seat but acting like a passenger while the car drove itself was a unique experience.

But the car took it a step further. As we approached slower-moving vehicles in front of us, the car sensed the left lane was open and vehicles were moving faster. Without any guidance from me, the car switched lanes and continued on autopilot.

To say that self-driving cars are innovative is an understatement, at best. The ability for a car to drive itself – and even more impressive, to adapt to its surroundings and conditions on the fly – is absolutely extraordinary.
But while Elon Musk and Tesla are building groundbreaking technology, not all innovation needs to be mind-blowing – or even cutting-edge – to be valuable. If innovation is defined as the introduction of something new, then hundreds (or even thousands!) of advances can be considered innovative.

Other innovations are more down to earth.

Let’s think about painting. In itself, painting is not innovative. It’s been around for thousands of years. Of course, some types of painting have evolved as a result of innovative thinking. For example, the ability to powder-coat steel with different colors and designs was unheard of less than a hundred years ago. But today, powder coating is no longer new and special. So how can painting, and more specifically, painters themselves be innovative today?

All it takes is to introduce something new.

Wikipedia states that innovation “is accomplished through more-effective products, processes, services, technologies, or business models that are readily available to markets, governments and society.”
“More effective processes” stands out in that statement, because it suggests that painters can be innovative by simply implementing better processes.

“A better process” can take many forms. It can mean a new, more-efficient way of applying paint, or it can mean a new way of tracking the progress of jobs, or it can mean monitoring the inventory of remaining paint. Most painting contractors – including mom-and-pop operations as well as large, multi-city operations – are so focused on doing their core work of painting, that they don’t think about the efficiencies and profit margin gains that can be realized through innovative job-tracking processes.

Process-improvement innovations aren’t groundbreaking when compared with innovations introduced by Tesla, Microsoft and other large tech companies. But introducing new processes to improve efficiencies can have significant, long-term implications. And that’s what innovation is all about, right? Introducing something new to improve a process and, ultimately, boost productivity and profitability.

In the world of field service operations, “innovation” takes many forms.

How do you describe the changes brought about by the Internet and always-on mobile devices? Pretty extraordinary, right? From cloud computing and hand-held devices that allow field technicians to streamline their work, to augmented reality that enables remote support, these extraordinary technological advances have changed the field service industry forever.

But what about more-subtle (and more down-to-earth) innovations? They, too, have left an indelible imprint on field service operations. For example, in what could be described as an innovative shift in the way business is conducted, rather than an earthshattering product innovation, servitization comes to mind. For many organizations, servitization means their work is no longer about installing a vending machine or an air-conditioning unit at a customer’s site and that being the end of the transaction. It’s about the organization partnering with its customer to ensure uninterrupted performance of the product through ongoing monitoring of the product and providing service when required.

Or consider customer self-service. That’s “subtle innovation” at its finest. Allowing customers to take control of some of the maintenance of their equipment can help them feel more in control and mean that down time of the AC unit or vending machine is reduced or even eliminated. Customer self-service uses existing technology and extends its application and effectiveness through innovative processes; making it easy for the customer to take control ensures more “up time” and increases their satisfaction.

Servitization and customer self-service may not be considered as extraordinarily innovative as cloud computing, but they are nonetheless innovations that are transforming field service operations.