Monday, December 31, 2007

Thinking Innovation

In my last job, I found one of my strengths that worked against me was innovation.   People simply didn't want to try new things, and so what I saw as a way to make a system or project better was perceived as some sort of sabotage.  

Today, I ran across a piece in the Times about how innovation and knowledge can affect the workings of a company.  I was struck particularly by Cynthia Barton Rabe's idea of the "zero-gravity thinker."

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems.”

She cites as an example the work of a colleague at Ralston Purina who moved to Eveready in the mid-1980s when Ralston bought that company. At the time, Eveready had become a household name because of its sales since the 1950s of inexpensive red plastic and metal flashlights. But by the mid-1980s, the flashlight business, which had been aimed solely at men shopping at hardware stores, was foundering.

While Ms. Rabe’s colleague had no experience with flashlights, she did have plenty of experience in consumer packaging and marketing from her years at Ralston Purina. She proceeded to revamp the flashlight product line to include colors like pink, baby blue and light green — colors that would appeal to women — and began distributing them through grocery store chains.

“It was not incredibly popular as a decision amongst the old guard at Eveready,” Ms. Rabe says. But after the changes, she says, “the flashlight business took off and was wildly successful for many years after that.”

By being the "new kid on the block," Ms. Rabe was able to find a completely new way of looking at the systems in place at Eveready.  When I read this, it struck me that I now have a term to describe the way I think: zero-gravity thinking.

I love to explore problems and systems and find ways to fix or improve them.  For example, this weekend, I was at Home Depot with Nate and while he was looking for a new stove gasket (word to the wise: it's a special order only item), I poked around at the displays of kitchen cabinets.  I found some displays marked with a symbol that meant there were new innovative storage designs, like built in spice racks, or track hung baskets that maximized space use.  I found this completely fascinating, and even though I'm not an architect or interior designer, I kept looking at the "non-innovative" designs to try and imagine ways to make the space more accessible or useful.  And I thought about how I could use these designs to make my own kitchen more functional.  (I can't--my kitchen is completely dysfunctional.)

When I think about my favorite job, the first one I had right out of college, I realize that what I liked best was my boss' love of innovation and creativity, and the way he encouraged me to think creatively too.  What I didn't like about my last job was that my ability to think outside the box was stifled and unwanted.  

What all of this analysis tells me is that I need a job where I will be able to use my innovative talents and be a zero-gravity thinker.    

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