Business Innovation Means Unlikely Pairings

I was reading the newspaper yesterday and I came across two words that just didn't go together. They weren't exactly an oxymoron, just moronic. At least that's what struck me when I first read the phrase "Playboy Radio."

According to the article, one of the satellite radio services is taking the bunny to radio. This challenged everything that I thought I knew about guys -- that we're visual creatures and that we're not the best abstract thinkers. Playboy radio? How will Playboy play without the visual?

OK, I get it that there is a thriving business in adult phone services. So I guess there is some precedent for talking dirty on the radio. But this business summed up to me everything that a real guy would have no interest in. And that got me thinking about other things that I would have never put together -- like Poker TV, men's mousse and "Adult Outlet" (I saw that on a billboard in Las Vegas a few years ago).

They're all unlikely pairings. And the more I thought about it, I realized that pairing seemingly unlikely concepts is one of the real keys to innovation -- the ability to put things together in a new and innovative way.

Meeting the needs of your existing customers is a challenge. You've got to watch and listen and be prepared to shake things up when they aren't being served well enough. But the really tough part is serving needs that your customers don't even know they have -- their unrealized needs.

How do you find someone's needs when they don't even know they have them? It's not easy. You've got to understand their business so well that you can anticipate totally new solutions for today's and tomorrow's problems. For example, how many of you out there ever imagined the Internet or e-mail before you had your first computer? Be honest.

Most of us can't imagine something that is a few steps beyond anything we're currently using. Take hybrid cars or the iPod. Both are relatively small leaps from things that already existed. But I'm guessing that they were a total surprise to most people. Heck, I'll admit, I never saw either of them coming. And now I find both essential.

Sure, there are some innovations that just come out of thin air. But most of them come about in a more pedestrian way -- they come from combining two unlikely things to create something totally new.

So the next time you see an unlikely pairing -- and trust me, you will -- appreciate the leap of faith that someone took to create it. Sure, it might be a bridge to nowhere, but at least the creators asked questions and explored a new direction in which to take things.

It's hoped that the unlikely pairing will motivate you to explore your own unlikely combination -- something that will push you in a new direction. I'd like to continue with this conversation about innovation, but I've got an important radio program that I need to listen to.


"I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." -- Bob Dylan


From "The Boss's Survival Guide" by Rosner, Halcrow and Levins (McGraw Hill, 2001):

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