Innovation Can Help You Stand Out in a Crowd

February 12, 2008  

Innovation can help your organization improve its products, processes, or business model. But maybe, innovation’s greatest strength is helping you stand out from the crowd.

Let me give you a personal example where I learned this by accident.

A few years back, when I lived in London, I was a member of a hip and trendy club. Basically it was a gorgeous four story house with comfy sofas where members gathered for food, drinks, and social events. Their annual Academy Awards parties were so popular, they were by invitation only. One year I was fortunate enough to receive mine in the mail.

The invitation read: “DJ or PJs.” In England, a DJ is a dinner jacket/tuxedo. PJs are obviously pajamas. With the 8 hour time zone difference between London and Los Angeles, the event went from 11PM until 6AM. Given how late the event started, I assumed everyone would opt for comfy PJs rather than stuffy DJs. That day I purchased a relatively inexpensive – and loud – yellow silk bath robe, blue pajamas, an ascot, and slippers. You can see the finished product in the photo left.

I arrived at the event around midnight – fashionably late. The crowd had already gathered. The two bouncers at the door verified I was on the guest list and let me in. Both were wearing tuxedos. I walked in and immediately saw a buddy of mine who worked at the club. He too was wearing a tux. I took a quick glance around. Everyone was in black tie. I asked him, “Um, is anyone else here wearing pajamas?” Without saying a word, he simply shook his head. I could tell he pitied me.

My instinct told me to leave. It was a very awkward and uncomfortable situation. But instead of running, I grabbed a glass of champagne and strutted in like I owned the place. All heads turned and looked at me. I thought I heard a gasp or two from the crowd. Then immediately, people walked up to me to introduce themselves. The guys whispered something to the effect of, “I wanted to wear pajamas, but I just didn’t have the cojones.” By the end of the night, I knew everyone. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with me. Even the local “movie stars” in the room weren’t as popular.

Innovate to Stand Out

Afterwards I reflected on this experience and how it could be applied to business innovation. What I realized is that at a black tie affair, a tuxedo – no matter how pricy or fancy it is – will always stand out less than an inexpensive bathrobe.

For many, innovation is about designing a better tuxedo. “Hey, we’re in the 8 track tape market. Let’s create 8 track HD.” Or, “Windows XP has been out for a few years, I guess it must time for a newer, more powerful operating system.”

One problem is, as Clayton Christensen described in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, companies innovate faster than customers lives change. As a result, products become over priced and overly complex (Office 2007 is a perfect example).

The winners are those who create something low cost and simple, yet different.

Be forewarned, being different may feel uncomfortable. Just as I wanted to leave a seemingly embarrassing situation, businesses want to kill all ideas that don’t fit the “mold.” Instead, play with these ideas. Don’t dismiss them too quickly. Have the courage to explore them – even if it takes a bit of champagne to get up the nerve.

I am not suggesting that you be different for the sake of being different. That only creates a short lived fad. But if you are not #1 in your industry, your innovations should set you apart from the competition. Trying to emulate the company you are chasing will only exhaust your resources.

To stimulate some creative thinking, ask, “How can we create something…

  1. that leverages our core strengths?
  2. that solves a pervasive customer pain?
  3. of lower cost and lower complexity than the competition?
  4. that sets us apart from the crowd?

Remember, sometimes the best innovations are those that are simple, low cost – and fundamentally different. Instead of better tuxedos, maybe people just want bathrobes.

P.S. Although it has been several years since that event, I still wear the same bathrobe almost daily. Not only was the bathrobe less expensive than a tuxedo, it proved to be much more practical.

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7 Responses to “Innovation Can Help You Stand Out in a Crowd”

  1. Dr.YKK on February 12th, 2008 5:40 pm

    Hi Stephen,

    Great stuff! I’m the keynote speaker at a national business conference end of this month. I was planning to wear a tux or a suit as usual. Your article changes my mind. I’m going to wear a loud Hawaii shirt instead. By doing so, I’ll be living the message that I’ll be communicating in my talk. Thanks for the Eureka! moment.

  2. Stephen Shapiro on February 13th, 2008 6:13 pm

    Dr. YKK, I’m sure you’ll stand out regardless of what you wear!

  3. Antony Woods on February 14th, 2008 2:50 am

    Hi Steve,

    I heard a Buddhist monk speak once who said that the monk’s robes were “power dressing”. What is interesting is how because a monk has only a few possessions like a bowl and robe, their mental obsessions can get concentrated on them so that they get very attached to their bowl and robes, so that the Buddha had to come up with lots of rules about them.

    Regards / Antony.

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  6. Eolake Stobblehouse on March 14th, 2008 2:54 pm

    My commercial web site (tasteful nude art) has a dreadfully simple web design, where almost all similar sites (if there really were any) have slick commercial designs. And yet it has around 80k visitors daily. I just focus on the best content possible.

  7. Stephen Shapiro on March 14th, 2008 6:02 pm

    Eolake, the best way to stand out is to have a good product. In particular a product that people want that they can’t get elsewhere. I totally agree that slick designs without substance lead to an unsustainable business. A restaurant in a fancy building that serves bad food will not be around long. Steve