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Innovating at intersections. Original Image @ https://flic.kr/p/h6i1P8

Innovating at Intersections

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Innovating is hard, innovating takes time, and innovating takes energy. It doesn’t come out of thin air, it comes about from a focused effort to shift gear and it comes about from a focused effort to leap-frog competition. There are obviously many ways to approach innovation, but one that has been proven to work many times over is what I call innovating at intersections.

What is the idea behind innovating at intersections?

Innovating at intersections is about learning from others, and about applying relevant ideas from other industries, markets, sub-markets and applications. Finding patterns in what other companies, industries and markets do and understanding how this relates to you is a good way to spot trends before they happen, and hence to forecast the future. Spotting trends and forecasting the future are obviously good ways to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation.

Notice the important difference between copying what others do, and taking ideas, thoughts and insights and spinning them in a way that suits your industry, market, application and product. There is a good reason that other industry or market is overlapping with yours. Different markets have different needs, the problems that needs solving are going to be different and therefore the solutions will need to be different. But again, remember that looking at what others do and what problems they are solving and how, will always trigger great ideas that lead to innovation.

Examples? Web 2.0!

There are many examples where one industry has grown from where others left off. Or where one has evolved drastically by taking inspiration from others.

One example can be found if we go back to when Web 2.0 had taken off and the Web 2.0 businesses had all collected tons of user-generated data. Smart people who were innovating at intersections quickly realized that this information would be even more valuable if it was cross-pollinated with something else. What if you took a map (Google Maps), and layered public information (crime) or user-generated content (housing) on top of it? You got an easy to understand visualization, updated in real-time, with important but hard-to-read data. Sites like chicagocrime.org and housingmaps.com manually parsed data sources (Chicago police and Craigslist) and reverse engineered Google Maps to display data on top of it. Someone else had already done the heavy lifting for them in terms of collecting the data, as well as creating a mapping service. But they still took those separate ideas, and combined them in a way that innovated beyond what anyone had done before.

After this the Web 2.0 industry took a page out of the software development book, and introduced Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Such interfaces had been used forever in the software industry to allow others to reuse pre-packaged libraries of software code. Now they were used so that others could innovate even easier on top of existing web services such as Google Maps. The number of “mashup” products that mixed data sources and visualization tools like Google Maps simply exploded.

Early 2000s Web 2.0 mashups like chicagocrime.org practiced innovating at intersections. Click To Tweet

Examples? Computer animated feature films!

Another great example is computer-animated feature films. Lucasfilm is well-known for the Star Wars movies, as well as their special effects leadership back in the day. When the computer division of Lucasfilm started Pixar, they founded a hardware (and software) company to help them make better special effects. But it wasn’t until Pixar sold off their hardware division and laid off their hardware staff, that they became a true success. They did this by building computer-animated feature films through their partnership with Walt Disney Studios. Somewhere along the way Steve Jobs had stepped in and taken over from Lucasfilm, which obviously helped as well. But by looking at where special-effects heavy movies like Star Wars intersected with animated feature films from Walt Disney, Pixar found a new niche in which they could truly innovate.

Taking Star Wars special effects skills to Disney films was Pixar innovating at intersections. Click To Tweet

Examples? Dell’s build-to-order!

Finally looking at the car industry is always interesting as it is often seen as an industry with barely any innovation at all. Something I believe is wrong. It of course gets even more interesting if you look at companies that has taken ideas from it, to further prove that the car industry is innovative.

Dell was founded in 1984 and as soon as they moved from chip vendor to computer manufacturer they realized that just doing the same thing that others where doing made no sense. The innovation they brought to the industry was their configure-to-order / build-to-order approach, where consumers could customize their order online and get it built and shipped in days. This could be immediately traced back to the auto industry. Others in the computer business could support build-to-order from dealers, but could never personalize enough to allow the end-users to specify their computers themselves. But in the car industry Toyota and others had been into lean manufacturing long before Dell moved into computers. Understanding what Toyota did to optimize car manufacturing became the key differentiator for Dell.

This is also a good reminder that innovation is not all about products, functions and features. It is also about business models, supply chains, manufacturing methods and much, much more.

Dell using lean manufacturing as 1980s differentiator show value of innovating at intersections. Click To Tweet

Summary

Patterns affecting the future are always easier to spot in hind sight. But you cannot ignore innovating at intersections as an approach to predict or even create the future. We sometimes fool ourselves that looking at what competition is doing will help us innovate. But to leap-frog, we instead need to look at what other markets and industries do.

Allow your self to spend time understanding what others are doing, learning from others and getting inspired by others. Simply have a quick look at what adjacent businesses, industries and markets are doing. What trends they currently experience, what trends they have experienced in the past and what solutions they put in place to solve their problems.

You will quickly realize that not only will you find great solutions to problems you’ve been thinking about your self. But you will also find tools to spot movements, changes and patterns in the future that help you get ahead of the pack.

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Alexander Sandstrom

Passionate product manager with a love for technology and innovation. More about me.

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