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Sometimes Simplicity Leads to Big Innovation

June 30, 2017

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This post originally appeared on Hanley Wood’s HIVE for Housing site.

Brands spend millions of dollars on innovation—establishing innovation labs, commissioning studies, and paying high-priced consultants—all to ensure they don’t become the next Kodak, Blockbuster, or Tower Records. From Tesla to Google to Amazon, tech companies are entering into new markets and disrupting brands that have controlled market share for decades. As a result, corporate R&D departments are spending millions to try to develop the next Instagram, Nest, or Echo so they aren’t the next “what not to do” casualty.

While your R&D team works on your company’s moonshots, remember that innovation isn’t always the result of millions of dollars or teams of dozens of people. There have been many innovations with much more humble beginnings. Dollar Shave Club was developed by a guy who was tired of buying razors from the drug store. Equipter was developed by a roofer who wanted a better way to remove old roofing shingles. Domino’s Pizza famously embraced the ingenuity of its employees in its “a great idea can come from anywhere” campaign, which touted the story of a new product, developed by a franchise owner in Ohio, that was then sold at locations across the country.

The most common difference between the corporately funded labs and these examples? The R&D teams focus on what will deliver the highest ROI whereas the others have a much simpler goal: to solve a problem. And the latter is something that every employee at every level at every company should be striving to do.

The home building category is ripe with opportunities for this kind of streamlined, simplified innovation. While the big brands invest millions in discovering the next billion-dollar idea, individual inventors and startups are busy identifying ways to help make the average builder’s job easier instead of worrying about what will make millions.

While the tech industry has made significant inroads into the home building industry, it has also opened up a world of opportunity for those builders. Technology, like the Amazon Echo and Nest Thermostat, have created entirely new homeowner behaviors, all with thousands of new data points.

If a builder would talk to my Echo, they’d hear an awful lot of my complaints as a homeowner and DIYer. There’s no shortage of terrible user experiences begging to be fixed:

  • In an era of apps and big data, why do HVAC inspectors still rely on stickers to track furnace maintenance?
  • Why don’t bolts have the size etched on top so you don’t have to test and try different sizes to see what fits?
  • Why do we have to play a guessing game to discover what’s behind our own walls? (I hate hearing the contractor tell me, “We won’t know for sure until we rip the walls down and see what’s inside!”)

This is the genius of Intuit’s “Follow Me Home” program. It forces the company’s engineers to understand the end user—how they’re using the software, what they like about it, what they wish it had, etc. It gives the Intuit team key insights that lead to small tweaks that have the ability to become a big success.

One way to get at the small, simple innovations is to bring in a new perspective. Remember, a great idea can come from anywhere. In an industry where customers are getting smarter and their expectations are climbing higher, home builders and housing developers should be striving for more innovation, both big and small.

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