Innovation Through Observation

Learn and innovate through observation

“Sometimes – if you’re lucky – you can find inspiration for innovation by observing yourself. In many parts of your life, you go through steps so mechanically, so unconsciously, that this is not possible. When you’re off your own beaten path, however, you are more open to discovery: when you travel, especially overseas; when you rent an unfamiliar car; when you try a new sport or experience a new activity. At those times, you are more open to ask the childlike “Why?” and “Why not?” questions that lead to innovation. Whenever you are in that new-to-the-experience mode, I would urge you to pay close attention and even take notes about your impressions, reactions, and questions. Especially the problems, the things that bug you. We call these mental and jotted-down observations “bug lists,” and they can change your life. That’s what happened one day to twenty-six-year-old Perry Klebahn on a visit to a Lake Tahoe ski resort.

Klebahn was recovering from an ankle fracture, and although he could walk without pain, his doctor had warned that skiing was inadvisable. Still wanting to meet his friends for lunch on the slopes, Klebahn discovered that the resort had some snowshoes available to help him traverse the snowy terrain. Using snowshoes for the first time, he was struck by how incredibly awkward they were to use. For one thing, they weighed more than ten pounds, turning what would have been a pleasant walk into serious exercise. On level or uphill terrain, the front of the snowshoes would fill up with snow, making them even heavier and causing you to trip over your own feet. Whenever there was a downhill slope, the shoes were hard to control and would sometimes slip out from under you. All in all, a pretty unpleasant experience, and a product category that had not seen much innovation since Lewis and Clark. A fatalist would have just written off snowshoes as awkward, antiquated equipment, but Klebahn was a Stanford product design student at the time, learning how to sharpen his observation skills, keeping bug lists, and asking a lot of “why?/why not?” questions.

Inspired by observing his own difficulties with the existing technology, Klebahn – while still a student – formed Atlas Snowshoe Company, which almost single-handedly created today’s snowshoe industry. Using a clever design and high-tech materials, he cut the weight of the snowshoes by 70 percent and made them easy to use on any terrain. That left the small task of creating an industry around his new product, but within a few years, Atlas had partnered with ski resorts from Vancouver to Sun Valley in creating snowshoeing areas. Resorts initially worried “if we build one, will they come?” but a single snowshoe area in Vail boasted more than 100,000 visitors by its second season. Perry Klebahn, starting with a single observation, then following up with a lot of creativity and hard work, grew Atlas Snowshoe Company to more than $10 million in sales and then sold the company.

Anecdotal? Yes, but hardly an isolated case. Ask around, and you’ll find that many entrepreneurs got started by observing humans struggling with tired routines and asking themselves what they could do about it.”

The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, p.28-30

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  • Jeff March 13, 2013 at 10:24 am

    I love it! I’ve been tasked w/ assisting some of our innovation efforts at work, and it’s been a challenge convincing some of the folks in management that people need to burn cycles just observing what our customers in the business do.

    “Can’t we rely on requests?”

    “Trust me, the business will let us know when they want something.”

    Really? Since when do people really know what it is they want when they’re not aware of the adjacent possible? As internal IT we are here to act as subject matter experts over all things IT, and we are in the best position to see where their pinch/pain points are and find solutions that they aren’t even aware of!

    We’re moving in the right direction, but innovation is really a difficult subject for some people to come to grasp.