John J. Dignam headshotStaying fresh requires balance; Innovation requires perspective, patience, insight, the acceptance of failure; and most importantly, trust.

Balance is an open-ended term, and must be actively managed.  It is a learned process.  Specific to customers (and business), you need to know your business better than anyone else; your products, customers, and competition; and most importantly your role in the Business Cycle.

In Business School, you’re taught metrics to evaluate the performance of your business; sales techniques; and how to evaluate the market place and your competition.  Your employees, competition, and customers can all learn and acquire these skill sets, however none of them has your specific and personal perspective.  How you apply what you’ve learned will help you actively manage (balance) staying fresh.

Innovation is a byproduct of engaging, listening, and paying attention to your customers and the market place.  Trust and respect are earned, and require patience.

I learned one of the most valuable lessons when we were making prosthetic sockets for a Para-Olympic Athlete.  We fabricated a replacement socket that exceeded his weight, strength, and stiffness requirements.  He donned the socket and immediately stated that it did not feel right and took it off.  We fabricated a second socket, which again exceeded his requirements; that one did not feel right either, however. After several hours of walking, skipping, hopping, and light jogging, coupled with encouragement and modest cajoling, he moved to the starting blocks and prepared for a 100 yard sprint.  A few hours later he was ready for a timed run, where at the completion was 0.75 seconds quicker than his personal best, and just shy of a World Record.   Later that year, he used the socket in the 2012 Paralympics, and won the 100M event.

The experience taught me many valuable lessons.  What occurred to me during the process was that, from the onset, the athlete (customer) did not understand the implications of his requirements for a new socket.  He believed that a lighter, stiffer, stronger socket would improve his performance, but he did not anticipate a socket that met these requirements would ‘feel’ different.  His main concern was that the socket was too light, would fail, and he would be injured, perhaps severely.

Regardless of my repeated assurances, I recognized that he did not ‘trust’ the socket would work.  We had to earn his trust, one step at a time.  Eventually, the athlete embraced the socket; changed his focus from the socket, to the race, and successfully implemented the innovation.

Continuous improvement, or innovation is a learned process.  Your customers know who they can trust, and who and when they can call upon to satisfy their requirements or solve their problems.  To innovate, businesses must be ‘resilient, adaptive, and mindful’, according to Moshe Rubinstein at UCLA.  Staying fresh is a byproduct of paying attention to the marketplace, your customers, not being afraid to fail, and knowing when to abandon a bad idea.