The Art of Beanbags & Funny Hats: thoughts from a GRUMPY Innovator

This week I am excited to share a very special guest post. It is written ( and illustrated) by the infamous Grumpy Innovator himself Costas Papaikonomou. He shares an excerpt from his book “thoughts from a GRUMPY innovator” that is already in its second edition. Witty and wise, sometimes irritating, always provocative but never boring, he takes us on a wild ride of mass market innovation, commenting on why most companies have got it wrong – VERY wrong! Marketers, be prepared to have your very soul challenged.  

Every solution has a problematic history by definition. In that sense, the skills behind successful innovation could be framed as the ability to create solutions for problems before anyone realizes what a nuisance they are. Successful innovation is not about dreaming up what would be science fiction today, but about foreseeing what will be plain vanilla tomorrow.

You can imagine most creative professionals do not find that thought particularly motivating, which is why such a large chunk of this discipline appears to be about putting the ‘art’ of being creative up on an ever higher pedestal than the output it generates. By the creative themselves, obviously. Much of the world of creativity is populated by gurus, visionary high priests who scatter riddles across 2×2 diagrams to paint your future portfolio. Well, implement creativity like a religion and you’ll need miracles to be successful.

Breakthrough ideas too often feed creative egos, not consumer needs. If anything, successful new products and services are like the weather; about 90% likely to be the same as yesterday’s products. This isn’t to say the world needs no game changing innovation; it’s merely that too many businesses waste time looking outside the box when their market still has plenty room left to grow and differentiate inside it.

For some of the world’s leading companies and br and teams, success seems based on historical serendipities, luck, or lack of competition. Nevertheless stupendous amounts of money are wasted on turning innovation projects into a beauty parade.

Maybe creative capability is genuinely seen as something much more difficult than it really is? Then again, if Edison really meant it being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration he would have invented deodorant. Or GoreTex. What’s making this all so difficult?

  • A belief you need to be uncomfortable to work outside your comfort zone. Funny hats, beanbags and humiliating ‘energizers’. A whole industry has grown around the mantra that in order for people to take creative risk, they should be made to feel even more uneasy than they already are.
  • Two men discuss innovationFeatures rather than benefits? The first decade of the new millennium brought high-end software and technology into consumers’ daily lives, in a way previously unheard of. With it came an insatiable drive for new features in order to provide marginal difference between devices and social media, a trend which seems to be trickling down into mass markets of physical products.
  • Innovation creativityRe-inventing predecessors’ wheels. In many corporate ecosystems the responsibility for innovation lies with the marketing department, a discipline known for high job rotation. New marketing & br and managers waste plenty of their time redeveloping ideas that have bombed many times before. Or worse – getting their heads spun ‘round by the creative agency who’s been working on the br and longer than they have.
  • Believing your own spin. In mature FMCG categories, the reality is that everyone needs to push the envelope on what can be claimed in order to st and out from the crowd. But the line between substantiated claims and spin is thin. No problem. Think homeopathy. But in practice this leads to claims that sound credible in respect of the br and equity or previous claims, rather than being based on new developments. And that’s when a credible myth all too easily becomes the new benchmark for truth.
  • Marketing executive’s lives and their consumers’ lives couldn’t be further apart. Having empathy with your target consumer does not mean bringing to market only the products you’d buy yourself. On the contrary. Corporate professionals dealing with mass market innovation tend to belong to a society’s top 2% income level, with the other 98% being their target. This target is seldom as interested in ‘on-the-go’ or ‘stress relief’ or ‘personalization’ as one may hope.

So what to do? Well, first of all assume there is a solution for any creative problem and trust that it won’t require black magic to uncover it.

  • Innovation creativity funnelMake time, not space. You don’t need to be in a Hungarian lakeside castle to be creative. In fact, the environment is mostly irrelevant as long as it’s comfortable – that’s why beds and bathtubs ignite new ideas. What you need most is TIME. Uninterrupted time to work on the innovation task, alone or as a group – to underst and the problem, the context and to work on solutions.
  • An un-filtered look at the (consumer) context. All you need is some rigor in pinpointing what the real needs are, for relevant answers to pop out painlessly. Real insight carries far. Note this involves more listening and reading to what consumers actually say and less reading of macro-economic trends or your br and vision deck.
  • Cherish the small incremental ideas. Most growth challenges do not require breakthrough solutions. Give small ideas a chance and create a culture of rolling them out regularly. It’s that culture that then makes the big innovation easier to create and deploy.
  • Reality first – then br and equity. Stay in touch with the physical attributes of your product before getting carried away by what you wish were possible. The touch, the smell, the chemistry, the taste, the sounds… Nothing beats a trip to your factory and R&D lab before getting to work on a consumer problem.

Not an innovation pipelineWishful thinking and blue-sky ideation are absolutely fine, but they are a transfer station, not the end destination of your effort. Even the wildest ideas must come back to earth in order to become part of an operational process that can make a business thrive.

If you would like to know more about innovation, perhaps in a less provocative way (!), then please do check out our website:

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