Leapfrogging: Harness the Power of Surprise for Business Breakthroughs

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Today's business environment demands leapfroggers--those who create rapid, disruptive innovation, not small improvements. A leading innovation pioneer shows that businesses often ignore the very thing that could lead them to game-changing products--the power of surprise.

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1. Business Breakthroughs Deliver Surprise

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I doubt whether the world holds for any one a more
soul-stirring surprise than the first adventure with ice cream.

—Heywood Broun

Chapter One Key Messages

1. We’re wired to appreciate positive surprise.

2. Business breakthroughs deliver surprise.

3. Breakthroughs go far beyond products and services.

4. Breakthroughs aren’t just for business.

This may sound a little over the top, but breakthroughs are a bit like pornography. Allow me to explain what I mean. The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was once asked to rule on what made something obscene. In his decision, he wrote a simple one-line answer, “I know it when I see it.” Business breakthroughs often have this same unmistakable yet simultaneously indefinable quality. They’re not always easy to predict or describe before they happen—but you recognize them when you see them.

Think about the first time you picked up an iPod, iPhone, or iPad and experienced the touch screen as an extension of your fingertips. Reflect back on the first time you played the Nintendo Wii, drove a Toyota Prius, used Purell hand sanitizer, discovered the trendy design of Method soap, visited Starbucks, or saw Cirque du Soleil. The list of the usual suspects of breakthroughs could go on and on. Though these things are all quite different from one another, they tend to produce similar feelings of positive surprise—with a hint of delight, wonder, and intrigue—when we first encounter them.

 

2. The Power of Surprise

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If you choose to go looking for something, you’d better
be ready for whatever it is you find.

Because it may not be what you were expecting.

—Jodi Picoult

Chapter Two Key Messages

1. Surprises are guideposts to new directions and opportunities.

2. Big surprises can come in small doses.

3. We need to surprise ourselves before we can surprise others.

On a small cobblestone street in Breda, Holland, about seventy miles south of Amsterdam, sits a nondescript drugstore. No formal name can be seen from the street, other than a sign that reads “Drogist,” Dutch for pharmacist. But the elderly owner, Joep, seemingly the only employee in the shop, is much more than that. Nearly eighty years old, Joep has transformed the customer experience in his quaint drugstore into something that would be the envy of CVS, Walgreens, and Rite-Aid.

Each year I spend two weeks in Breda—a big town for Holland with a population of almost 200,000—teaching at a small university. A few years ago I arrived in Breda after a long trip involving planes, trains, and automobiles, and I realized that the shaving cream container in my toiletry bag was empty. Since I didn’t want to show up for my first day of class with a five-o-clock shadow, I meandered through the twisting streets of Breda until I stumbled upon Joep. The appearance of his drugstore was nothing special, just a typical pharmacy with the usual sundries.

 

3. Leapfrogging to Breakthroughs

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A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong
is to think you control it.

—John Steinbeck

Chapter Three Key Messages

1. Creating business breakthroughs is a journey.

2. New mindsets are needed, not just new tools.

3. Surprises often join us on our journeys.

Mehmood Khan, Chief Scientific Officer at PepsiCo, is responsible for the company’s research and development, including extending the business beyond its traditional products such as Pepsi, Gatorade, and Doritos. Mehmood’s achievements are many. He helped re-launch Gatorade by introducing a variety of new products with cutting-edge sports performance-focused ingredients. He has also begun creating a whole new line of “good for you” snack foods that represent the biggest future thrust for the company. And yet, as much as Mehmood has accomplished, in talking with him, it’s clear that he still sees his mission and PepsiCo’s future as a work in progress, a challenging trek full of twists, turns, ups, downs, and—yes—surprises along the way. “Big things take time to take hold,” he said to me. “We’re making it clear to everyone that it’s OK not to freak out if things take time. Things will happen we can’t anticipate and where we’ll experience both successes and failures. This is all part of it.”

 

4. Listen: Start with Yourself, Not the Market

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No question is so difficult to answer as that to which
the answer is obvious.

—George Bernard Shaw

Chapter Four Key Messages

1. Holistic thinking reveals the biggest opportunities.

2. Our fundamental strengths provide threads to the future.

3. Breakthroughs begin with ourselves, not the market.

Think of the biggest assignment you’ve had. Now multiply the difficulty level of that task by at least three or four times. That will probably give you an idea of what Tina Christopoulou was facing a few years back.

Tina had to create five-year “roadmaps” for every business in the Colgate-Palmolive Corporation. We all know Colgate for its toothpaste. But the company also churns out dozens of different products, everything from deodorant to bathroom cleaner to fabric conditioner to shower gel. And Tina was responsible for coming up with a plan for how each of these lines should grow and evolve—not just in the United States, but globally. Nothing of this breadth, depth, and scale had ever been attempted before at the company.

 

5. Explore: Go Outside to Stretch the Inside

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The harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there’s gold in letting go of them.

—John Seely Brown

Chapter Five Key Messages

1. We can see our assumptions only after we overcome them.

2. Expanding our perspective softens our mindsets.

3. Pushing beyond the limits of our comfort zones leads to new insights.

4. Empathy leads to surprise.

I have a quick story for you and then a question. First the story: A bus driver was heading down Van Ness Avenue in my hometown of San Francisco. He went through a stop sign without even slowing down, then turned onto a one-way street going the opposite direction as the rest of the traffic. A police officer saw the whole thing, but he didn’t stop the bus driver or issue a ticket because no laws had been broken. How can this scenario be possible?

If you answered that the bus driver was walking down the street, you are correct. This is a very simple example to illustrate how we all make assumptions. Most people just assume that a bus driver is always driving a bus. But, of course, that’s not the case. The most important part of this exercise isn’t to point out that an assumption may have been made in the first place—it’s only natural to do so. It’s to show that most of us recognize that we’ve made an assumption only after we’ve discovered that our thinking was invalid or that it led us astray. And by then, it can often be “too late.”

 

6. Act: Take Small Simple Steps, Again and Again and Again

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All great things have small beginnings.

—Peter Senge

Chapter Six Key Messages

1. Large leaps begin with small steps.

2. Small steps start big cycles of learning.

3. The best first steps are sophisticatedly simple.

4. Surprises provide clues about what to do next.

Over the last decade, Apple has been consistently ranked as one the most innovative companies in the world by the vast majority of trade groups and publications. So let me ask: How many times have you heard about Apple’s intention of transforming the music industry with its iPods and iTunes? Probably lots. And it makes sense—they’ve done something that’s truly transformative.

In fact, Steve Jobs was once quoted in an interview as saying, “When we created the iTunes Music Store, we did that because we thought it would be great to be able to buy music electronically, not because we had plans to redefine the music industry.”42 Looking back, it’s probably not too strong of a statement to say that Apple actually disrupted the music industry with iTunes. But did Apple know it was doing this at the time? No! Apple created iTunes because it felt like the right thing to do at the time. It was a solitary step that had unintended—yet quite positive (at least for Apple)—consequences.

 

7. Persist: Take the Surprise Out of Failure

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Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize
how close they were to success when they gave up.

—Thomas Edison

Chapter Seven Key Messages

1. You will fail.

2. External criticism comes from old assumptions.

3. Failure results from fear, not failure itself.

4. Reframing failures as stepping-stones keeps us going.

5. Optimism fuels action.

At many big companies, there’s a lot of room for lip service but little room for real failure. We hear the catchphrases over and over: “We need to embrace failure,” “Failure is necessary for success,” “We must fail faster to succeed sooner,” and so on. But as soon as the possibility of actual failure arises, suddenly all those comforting clichés go out the window. It’s one thing to promote punchy phrases; it’s another to live them.

Leapfrogging is about using failure as a tool to find success. Take Sarah Robb O’Hagan, President of Gatorade, for example. Having learned that many young football players pack bananas in their sport bags only to find them mashed between their cleats before practice, she asked her product development team to create a better alternative. The result: a pre-workout drink pouch containing a powerful carbohydrate punch. The ingredients weren’t the challenge; it was the container. “We knew drink bottles like the backs of our hands, but pouches were a completely new animal,” Sarah said.

 

8. Seize: Make the Journey Part of the (Surprising) Destination

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The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but on significance—and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.

—Oprah Winfrey

Chapter Eight Key Messages

1. Looking back, we see that every step was in the right direction.

2. Humility is the door to “predictable surprise.”

3. Clarity of purpose is the ever-present guidepost.

4. “Telescoping” keeps us agile and adaptive.

It was never my intention to write a book about the “zen” of leapfrogging. But one thing continually struck me during my research for this book. Most of the people I spoke with saw their breakthrough success as resulting from literally everything that they had experienced—the intentional strategies and plans, the serendipitous surprises, the failures, and the wins along the way. Although some people told me that they might do things differently given the chance, most fully acknowledged that they couldn’t have achieved what they did if they hadn’t gone through the entire experience.

 

9. Bring It Home

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I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think
I have ended up where I intended to be.

Douglas Adams

In the town square of Tallinn, the capital of the Baltic country of Estonia, there’s a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s several hundred years old. When I walked by it, I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the chalk-scrawled sign in front that read: fair coffee and decent pies, soup full of elk. I also noticed that every Western tourist who glanced up at this makeshift billboard smiled from ear to ear. How could you not? I’m convinced the three young Estonian women running this restaurant knew their audience well because their house was full. In around 300 BC, Aristotle said that “the secret to humor is surprise.” Clearly it’s also the secret to selling mediocre food. Actually, the coffee and pies were pretty good. I didn’t order the soup full of elk.

A series of life changes combined with these types of light-hearted yet mind-jogging experiences helped me tune into the power of surprise as a unifying factor in challenging mindsets and creating breakthroughs. I described the main catalyst for this realization in the Introduction—a visit to a remarkable little café in Paris. But, as is usually the case when it comes to big shifts in one’s point of view, there were other factors at play. Living in another country definitely helped broaden my perspective. It challenged my assumptions and constantly revealed new ways of doing business and living life. One night, for example, my wife and I got a crash course of sorts in the French medical system. We thought our younger daughter had broken her nose, which required a call to our French doctor. When he answered the phone—yes, the doctor answered his own phone!—he agreed to see her right away. At his office, he examined our daughter’s nose and instructed us to take her for an X-ray at a lab down the street. We returned about an hour later, X-ray in hand. Fortunately, our daughter’s nose was not broken—and neither was our bank account. The entire “retail” cost of two doctor visits plus X-rays totaled seventy-five U.S. dollars. And, as an extra bonus, our daughter got to take home her X-ray because, in France, patients are responsible for the care and keeping of their own medical records. Later, my wife and I half-joked that the cost of this type of accident could bankrupt an uninsured family in the United States.

 

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