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What Unlikely Pairings May Teach Us About Innovation

Innovation 2The last few years have been inundated with major acquisitions, each creating buzz from within and beyond the business world. To name a few, in June of 2016, Microsoft acquired LinkedIn (which had already acquired online learning site Lynda.com the previous year). Fast forward to last month when Walmart announced it would buy Bonobos – a mostly-online men’s upscale clothing retailer – and Amazon announced it was set to buy Whole Foods Market.

This last acquisition particularly interested me given the somewhat recent debut of Amazon’s flagship grocery store, Amazon Go. This grocery store is unique. Sure, like all others, it sells packaged foods, produce and prepared meals. But what makes Amazon Go different is not what it has but what it lacks. There are no clerks, no tills and – most importantly – no lines. Shoppers simply scan their smartphones when they enter. When they remove an item from the shelf, it’s added to a virtual shopping cart. The customers are then charged for items automatically as they leave. In short, Amazon has an almost preternatural knack for finding pain-points in our everyday consumer experiences. Then, they work tirelessly to alleviate those pains. In the case of Amazon Go, which is currently open only to Amazon employees in Seattle, this means eliminating long lines and payment hassles.

Of course, we don’t know the strategy behind the Amazon-Whole Foods acquisition: it may seek to replicate the Amazon Go model on a larger scale; it may use its web expertise to position and sell Whole Foods products online; or – as some have suggested – it may capitalize on Whole Foods' highly-prized shopping data to improve its own online grocery sales. Regardless of Amazon’s intentions, the disparity between its model and Whole Foods’ will likely strengthen the innovation behind bringing its master plan to fruition.

In a recent interview at AICPA ENGAGE, Abigail Posner, Director of Strategic Planning at Google, pointed out that amazing products and services often arise from unexpected partnerships. Posner says that merely at the suggestion of two random words like chocolate and pillow, the human mind begins trying to find connections. The connection it finds may very well be the next big idea. Using the chocolate and pillow example, innovators may develop chocolate-covered melatonin for a midnight snack that improves one’s circadian rhythm. 

When I asked some colleagues what their dream acquisitions would be, Posner’s theory proved true.

One of my peers suggested that, “if the Humane Society used OKCupid’s dating algorithm, people could easily match with their perfect pound pet.” Another colleague devised a clever business model by combining the forces of Etsy and Lyft. “Etsy could sponsor skill-building workshops at homeless shelters, teaching residents not only about crafting but also about entrepreneurship and managing money. Lyft could then deliver the items locally, and the homeless could pocket a living wage.”

These ideas, unsurprisingly, sprout from the modern mind. As Posner suggests, “creativity is about solving problems.” We’re problem-solvers by nature, and we’re adept at connecting seemingly disparate dots, these connections often giving rise to innovation and adaptation. Google is no longer just a search engine. Now, it creates cutting-edge consumer products, from smart home devices to driverless cars. Microsoft is no longer just software; it’s moved into mobile and gaming arenas. And by diversifying its products to include healthy snacks and beverages, PepsiCo has continued to report earnings despite an exponential downward trend in soda sales.

Although some business model adaptations are forced (think the transformation of the common candle from utilitarian source of light to scented home décor), the most thrilling innovations are disruptive and predictive; not responsive. Disruption is no longer a dirty word. Disruption is what happens when someone is brave enough to question status quo, to champion possibility over prudence, and to forge a trend that others will follow. Disruption is a catalyst for ideation, and, as Abigail Posner puts it, “ideas are the currency of transformation.”

What opportunities to innovate do you see within your own practice or organization? Reflect on this, or pose these questions to your colleagues. Organize an ideation session, and accelerate your solution from idea to reality.

Brock Faucette, Corporate Communications Manager, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

Innovation courtesy of Shutterstock

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