Have you ever thought about why some organizations are more innovative than others? If we looked closely at such companies, I bet we wouldn’t find the answers inside.

Dave Nelsen

No, innovation most often comes from outside of a company and therein lies the problem. If you and your team are spending all of your time in the business, making only incremental process improvements along the way, I doubt … no, make that seriously doubt … that you are part of an innovative culture. How do I know this?

You’ve probably never heard of Edith Widder, but if you’ve ever watched something filmed underwater you may have benefited from one of her innovations. Widder invented a “remotely operated camera system, known as Eye in the Sea (EITS), an unobtrusive deep-sea observatory” along with a ton of other stuff (literally). See Wikipedia for additional details.

Among many other accomplishments, Widder is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” award winner. Regarding innovation, she says, “Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So, let’s all go exploring.”

When I ask business people where they could go exploring, frequently they answer, “At our customers.” That’s great, but here’s the problem as articulated by Henry Ford. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It turns out that there’s no evidence Henry Ford actually said that, but he should have. Indeed, customers typically can’t tell you what they want, especially if it requires a leap of innovation. Indeed, in my case, I never asked Steve Jobs for an iPad, and I had no idea how badly I needed it … until I got one.

However, customers are great at telling you something else. Ask them about their problems. Probe for their pain. If you’re not in sales mode, most people will be incredibly disclosing, talking until [insert a favorite cliché about talking here]. 

We all love to talk about our problems, if only someone would listen. In such conversations, you may find problems that you can address (AKA new market opportunities) with innovation based on what you already know.

After you’ve talked to your own customers, contemplate this thought: I wonder if talking to people who are not (yet) my customers might reveal additional, new opportunities?

Tom Freston, the guy who put MTV on the map observes, “Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way.” Tom brought us “I want my MTV.” Time Magazine recognized him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People. 

Yet most of us never look outside of our own industries. How will you find two things that already exist if you’re staying in one industry? Where else could you go exploring?

Here’s an idea: Most of us attend tradeshows and industry association events in our own industries. Have you ever thought of attending a tradeshow in an ancillary industry? As a speaker, I am invited to speak at countless random such events. It’s mind expanding to see what’s happening in industries other than our own. I’ve been to events ranging from the American Pool and Spa Professionals meeting (like being at a pool party), to the International Carwash Association convention (they have very clean rides). As I said, it’s mind expanding.

If you want to experience the newest and coolest technology that humans are pursuing, how about heading to Las Vegas next January (easy business case) to attend the event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show? Yes, for whatever reason, “CES” is now a name, not an acronym (along with AT&T and IBM).

Interested in exploring for new ideas in corporate culture or customer service? There’s a company that’s off-the-charts on both dimensions and they employ four full-time tour guides. I’m talking about Zappos. They’re also based in Vegas (now the business case is a no brainer). 

One of the best corporate culture ideas I discovered while exploring Zappos was offering a $3,000 bonus to employees if they’ll just leave. Think about the genius in that. If somebody is so disengaged in your company that $3,000 will motivate them to empty a seat for an excited, new team member …

You never know what you’re going to discover when you go exploring. And you never know which two things will click to result in a new innovation. But the more things you expose yourself to, the better your odds of innovating.

Here are some other places I’ve gone exploring recently (just to get you thinking): 

  • The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA
  • The Carnegie Museum of Art (including the fabulous Hiroshige’s To-kaido- Road collection of woodblock prints) here in Pittsburgh, PA
  • The Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA
  • Vistage, a CEO network that meets monthly
  • The Wynwood Walls in Miami, FL
  • The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH
  • AlphaLab and TechShop also here in the ‘Burgh. While the latter has sadly closed (locally and in nine other U.S. locations, too) our version may reemerge as Protohaven. When it does, go there.

I also explore the world electronically by listening to countless audio books and podcasts, by watching TED Talks and YouTube videos, and by Googling.

You’ve no doubt heard the story of where Apple’s original Mac graphical user interface (GUI) and Microsoft’s Windows idea came from. Yes, Steve Jobs, and separately Paul Allen (Microsoft co-founder, along with the more famous Bill Gates) went exploring at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

“So, schedule some innovation time on your calendar and get out of the office. Yes, lets all go exploring.”