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by Alan Hargreaves

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« Three things to not think about | Main | Three rules to stress test your great idea »

What's in the garage?

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Ways to do more with what you’ve got.

We were about age nine when my neighbour and I decided to explore the local creek. This required a boat.

Using scraps of discarded material, we fashioned a marine structure with wooden bow and stern. We hammered corrugated iron around it, puttied up the cracks and made a trailer out of garden stakes and pram wheels to haul it to the creek.

It capsized on launch and sank within seconds.

We promptly scheduled a product review. We added outriggers buoyed by old petrol cans and lashed them across the beam. They sort of worked. With a bit of tweaking they held the canoe upright, preventing our early death by drowning.

It all seems a bit Tom Sawyerish now but I was reminded of it by this example of retro-innovation in Steve Johnson’s book, Where Ideas Come From.

Humidicribs dramatically reduce infant mortality. Aid agencies have shipped them to poor countries with great results. The problem is they cost up to US$40,000 and break down within a few years, usually in places where spare parts or skilled repairmen are hard to find.

In poor countries, however, self-taught mechanics manage to keep old automobiles ticking over. Drawing on that market reality, a Canadian consultancy, Design that Matters, re-engineered the humidicrib to depend on car parts.

They replaced heaters with headlights and air circulation systems with dashboard fans. The whole thing could be powered by a motorcycle battery. The parts were readily available and plenty of people knew how to fix them. It’s the case for simplicity.

Often your simplest strength is your core strength.

The power of radio is that it only takes one human sense – hearing – to access it. When TV arrived, pundits predicted radio’s demise. Instead, it thrived in the car and reinvented itself via chat shows and breakfast programs. It has survived the internet. In fact it’s on it.

At the opposite end of the senses spectrum, TV did not eliminate cinemas. People still wanted the full-scale attack on your senses a movie theatre delivers. Premium theatres have since added food and wine, adding taste and sustenance to steal wallet share from restaurants and bars.

Time for a product review?

  • What have you got that still works? Men still use after-shave. In fact Gen Y males demand more grooming products than their fathers. That led Proctor and Gamble to re-launch Old Spice with new names like Red Zone and High Endurance, marketed via hip online videos. (This was aggressive reinvention. If you missed the campaign, click here to watch some inspired rebranding.) What have you got that could benefit from some rebranding? 
  • What’s changed? Cirque du Soleil realized cultural shift was turning people off caged or trained animals. They launched an animal-free circus with spectacular human acts wrapped around stories which were often based on animal themes. The result is a global success. Is it time to adjust your offering and take advantage of market shifts?
  • What else can you do with what you’ve got? Reinvention doesn’t confine itself to ancient businesses. Amazon may have started selling books; now it sells anything. It’s the pipeline rather than the product that drives the business. Many think the second most popular search engine is Yahoo. It’s actually YouTube. It just happens via video. Is there a tangential opening to do more with what you've got?

When it's time to refresh your business, check that you are optimising what you've already achieved. You can always tinker with your product but don't overlook other opportunities in your processes, your sales network or your people.


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