When change is in the air, innovation is ripe for the picking


By Jack Lander

Change is a major catalyst that enables innovation. Certainly we are in a time of change. Consciously or subconsciously, inventors notice changes and identify the opportunities that are spawned from this shift.

But inventors are not all alike. The “born inventor” is more inclined to identify incremental changes and refine existing products. They often come up with solutions to random problems, needs and wants-solutions that the public perceives as welcome, but not dramatically compelling. A new can opener-such as the type that cuts the side of the can without leaving a jagged top-is an incremental change. The can opener has existed in one form or another for more than 150 years. Its market is well established and predictable, leaving room for only incremental improvements.

On the other hand, the “entrepreneurial inventor” is less inclined to be prolific at random, but rather focuses on strategic business opportunities. They identify the larger opportunities that stem from change. They aren’t interested in opening a pizza restaurant based on a secret family sauce recipe. Such a venture might produce a handsome profit, but the incremental innovation is not psychologically satisfying. Entrepreneurial inventors may not even be consciously thinking about the changes that bring about unfilled needs that must be addressed. But unconsciously their radar is scanning and the need clicks in.

Ray Kroc was a milkshake machine salesman when he first walked into the McDonald brothers’ hamburger stand in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1954. What he saw was opportunity-the basic model of systematic, semi mass-production of hamburgers and french fries. He refined written specifications for production methods and machines, honing these through research and development, and highly disciplined franchising. All of this depended on change-a postwar America that had pulled out of a depression and was ready to demand appetizing, low-priced fast foods. Who knows whether Kroc was consciously aware that his entrepreneurial change would unleash the enthusiastic public response to his venture? Does it matter?

Yes, it does. The entrepreneurial inventor can wait to stumble onto another McDonald’s or he can seek out and explore change, finding an abundance of opportunities.

For example, consider the present recession. Obvious changes are job, home and health insurance losses, as well as the depletion of state and federal unemployment benefits. To witness a societal shift stemming from this reality, visit a Walmart parking lot one evening, almost anywhere in the U.S., and you’ll see people who are living in their minivans, recreational vehicles and even their cars. They are not stereotypical homeless persons; these are former middle-income families, some with kids, some in which both parents have lost their jobs.

Entrepreneurial inventors should take this opportunity to consider the prevalent needs that should be addressed and solved for this circumstance. These people need portable toilets and makeshift shower facilities. They need care for their children while they search for work. They need a central tent, equipped with electricity, high-speed Internet lines and a fax machine so that they can search for jobs online. And they need all of this for twenty dollars a night. Isn’t this something a charity should be running? Of course it is, but that isn’t happening. An entrepreneurial inventor can set up an ad hoc charity. Vacated properties are now all too common and the other essentials are readily available. This is an invention waiting for an entrepreneur to happen upon.

Is it feasible? We won’t know until one of us grabs hold of the opportunity. The enterprise, hopefully, will be short-lived and modestly profitable. But if not profitable, the experience gained will be of inestimable value.

My point is that we inventors can do a better job of inventing by looking to change as the source for products and service opportunities. Instead of being absorbed by random “great ideas,” we can ask ourselves what invention, of consequence, is needed now. Timing is essential.

Maybe one of us will give “Camp Walmart” a run for the money.