Sources of Opportunity and Innovation in a Turbulent Environment

Posted: April 4, 2009 in Powerful Ideas
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The only way to survive and thrive in a turbulent environment is to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities, and then convert these into success through innovative adaptation. Innovations can play out in two ways for organizations: in terms of internal processes and how and which inputs are used, and in terms of markets and competitors. Peter Drucker wrote extensively about sources of innovation in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, but here is my take on sources of change and opportunity for organizations right now.

Demographic Change

The fact that we have an aging population is old news by now, but I’m not sure we’re truly exploiting all of the opportunities this provides, both for business and for government services. We’ve all seen the Grey Power insurance commercials, as well as the advertisements for sit in bathtubs with doors on them. I wonder, though, if our governments, particularly health services, have truly started adapting to this new reality. We’re closing schools in Montreal. Perhaps that is an opportunity to convert the buildings into retirement homes. It could also be an opportunity to reallocate the educators to job-retraining programmes so they can help workers who have lost their jobs. Conversely, employers could create various mentoring, coaching and training programmes that are staffed on a semi-permanent or part-time basis by older workers. This could allow them to ease into retirement while maintaining a link with the workplace and contributing their considerable know how.

Increasing Diversity

Canada has the highest proportion of immigrants in the developed world. Something like one in five people in Canada was born outside the country. What does this mean if you’re trying to recruit people for your organization? The Canadian Forces have been struggling with this for years. The population is aging and the country is growing more diverse from an ethnic and religious standpoint. However, the military has made more progress in attracting older recruits than in getting young people of visible minorities and Aboriginal Canadians to sign up. That doesn’t make any sense. While it is great that someone who is forty, or even fifty, can serve their country, that doesn’t necessarily augur well for the future. There has been some progress, but this is the greatest recruiting opportunity for the Canadian Forces, simply because visible minorities and Aboriginal Canadians are the two fastest growing segments of the population. Organizations must find a way to attract and retain Canadians of all backgrounds. There are also a number of opportunities in serving increasingly diverse market segments.

Time Based Opportunities

Anything that frees up time, whether in terms of production or consumption, is good, because it follows the broad historical trend. I recently found a flyer on my windshield. It was for a service to change from winter tires to summer tires, either at home or at work. Presumably, the mechanics show up at the chosen location with their special equipment and do the switch in a flash, while the customer does other things. The price charged is basically the same as getting it done in a garage, but the convenience factor is much higher. I say, why stop at changing tires? How about oil changes and other minor maintenance checks? If a company operates a fleet of vehicles, perhaps they could team up with another company that offers this type of service. The time saved would surely make the investment worthwhile.

Increase the Value of Information

We live in a knowledge based society, but so much of our data and information is in forms that are counterintuitive or relatively inaccessible. This stems in large part from the fact that it is stored in alphanumeric form in databases, rather than in visual or other forms that are more readily understood by humans. Taking sales data and graphing it as a time series will often show a trend. By adding knowledge of economic cycles, managers can ascertain the likelihood and extent of a downturn. For another example, I recently helped a client that was concerned about potential competition and retaining clients. I suggested presenting client and competitor information in graphical form on a map. Managers can readily see where there are threats and opportunities, because of colour coding. This is something the military does. It is called a common operating picture, and it greatly increases situational awareness in an intuitive fashion. Vehicle navigation systems and the Google Maps® application with GPS on the iPhone® are also examples of what can be achieved by taking valuable information and presenting it in more intuitive formats so it can be used and accessed more easily.

Reduce Distance Through Technology

Doctors are now interacting with patients and colleagues remotely through videoconferencing and robotic technologies. Can these be applied to other areas in industry and government? Could a company or organization experiencing a shortage of certain types of technician and engineer not apply the same technology to getting the job done?

Take Out the Middleman

Google has revolutionized advertising by giving direct control to advertisers over the content of their messages and the data that is generated in the online world, thus changing the advertising industry. There has also been a knock-on effect in media, particularly newspapers, as they struggle to maintain add revenues. Another example of this effect is how iTunes® has taken out the middleman in music sales, both the retailer and the recording studios, and given the choice and power to the musician and the consumer. This has accentuated what Nicholas Taleb calls the Black Swan effect, that is, the winner-take-all nature of the recording industry. We could view many more of these trends and sources of opportunity (provide peace of mind while allowing people to take small risks or get thrills, reduce complexity, reduce or merge steps). The important thing is to look at many different sources of opportunity in a changing and turbulent environment with a view to adapting and innovating. Organizations of all types – governmental, commercial, military, educational, medical, community, philanthropic, for example – must be on the lookout for changes and opportunities, and must find innovative ways to adapt. Moreover, they must look at ways to better serve their markets and to produce new or better adapted products and services. What are you doing right now to find and generate new opportunities?

© 2009 Richard Martin

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