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To InnovateóBreak a Rule

by Thomas Ordahl  |  
October 31, 2006

Today, every business feels the pressure to innovate. Innovation is touted daily in the headlines of business magazines, the presentations of consultants, and in the books and conferences of business visionaries.

We feel it in the parity of our pricing and during our strenuous attempts to articulate "unique value." And we witness it as emerging markets move from providers of low-cost labor to competitors, or as new technologies disrupt yet another competitive advantage.

Yes, OK! We need to innovate. But how?

Innovation seems so unmanageableómore akin to the artist searching for a muse than a business process. We dive into the "fuzzy front-end" of product development hoping that by talking to customers or anticipating trends we will find that source of inspiration, that flash of insight.

Here's a different suggestion: Break a rule! Do something that disrupts a fundamental tenet of your market or industry.

If you look back at some of the most successful examples of innovation, you'll observe that in many cases innovators didn't come up with some entirely new product or service, but instead directly challenged a sacrosanct practice of their industry and bested their competitors by changing the rules of the game.

Consider Barnes & Noble. Remember what it used to be like going to a bookstore? They were like libraries, only with worse customer service and more rules. Buying a book was like entering a temple with its own indecipherable rituals of categorization and secret language. There were no chairs, reading was discouraged, and we would never have thought about bringing in food or drink.

Yet Barnes & Noble created a multibillion dollar business out of this quiet corner of retail. Not only can you drink coffee in a comfortable chair while reading a book that you haven't bought yet, but you bought the coffee in the in-store cafe. The bookstore went from being a place of foreboding to a social destinationóin large part because Barnes & Noble had the foresight and temerity to risk breaking many of the seemingly inviolate rules of its industry.

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Thomas Ordahl is with Group 1066, LLC (, a strategic marketing firm.

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