Too often innovation gets confused with invention, when in fact they are not the same. Unfortunately, we are bombarded with articles and warnings that in order to survive as entrepreneurs we must innovate or be left behind. Ok, I’m not sure that we would be left behind, but innovating or improving how we do things, is never a bad idea.

The goal for any innovation should not be for the sake of innovation alone but should either enhance the customer experience or increase our efficiency. If you can do both that’s even better.

Microsoft Office 365

pilot in open cockpit plane

A simple example where, in my opinion, neither of these goals are achieved is Microsoft Office. Over the past few years, I have watched as this software grouping has morphed into a bloated feature laden product.. What was once a simple dropdown menu style that allowed access to the most commonly used functions have disappeared under renamed menus loaded with icons that would have an archeologist scratching their head trying to decipher these hieroglyphics.

Excel Icons

I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of the Office 365 install base are not power users, therefore these improvements or product evolutions, fail my innovation test. It neither improves the user experience nor increases efficiency for most of us as we waste so much time looking for a simple formatting function.

I’m sure that some power users need these enhancements that the product engineers dream up but for most of us it’s overkill.

A recent experience with an Excel spreadsheet or is it now called a workbook or a worksheet? Regardless of what it’s now called, I needed to unlock a protected spreadsheet. Because I don’t use Excel everyday, I needed to hunt down that function. Once upon a time, you could simply click on one of the dropdown menus and click on that function. Well no more.

After I don’t know how long of hunting and pecking through the drop menus and trying to decipher the various icons, I typed “unprotect” in the Excel search bar to no avail. Finally, I turned to Google for help and finally found the answer. Seriously, nothing should be that hard.

A simple solution might be to just offer the everyday user an option for a “Classic” menu that would offer the user the most commonly used functions within the complete Office 365 lineup. Now that would be an innovation!

Alternatives such as Open Office, Libre Office and Google’s Workspace offer a simpler user interface. Aside from being free, their popularity might be driven partly by their ease of use.

Small Business

Innovation for most small businesses does not have to be earth shattering. In SBM #36 Innovation, I mention that what we need to understand is that most successful innovation comes from either borrowing ideas from other industries or reconfiguring your existing products or services to tackle new markets or customers. Put this way, innovation becomes less daunting and can be implemented  incrementally over time and does not require wholesale retraining of your staff and customers. Therefore, they are considered natural or logical enhancements.

Merriam Webster provides the following definitions which may serve to clarify the difference between innovation and invention:


“a device, contrivance, or process originated after study and experiment,” usually something which has not previously been in existence.


for its part, can refer to something new or to a change made to an existing product, idea, or field.                                                                                   

They go on to provide the following example:
One might say that the first telephone was an invention, the first cellular telephone either an invention or an innovation, and the first smartphone an innovation.

The wristwatch

Another simple and great innovation is the wristwatch. Prior to the 20th century, wristwatches were only worn by wealthier women as a fashion accessory, whereas men had pocket watches. It took a World War for the wristwatch to become a mainstay accessory for men.

As the story goes, coordinating troop movements, bombardments and attacks required officers and soldiers to be always aware of the time. The process of fumbling for a pocket watch proved cumbersome due to the necessity of having to always check. That frustration was compounded during the winter months when wearing gloves.

Someone gave this some thought. They simply stole or should I say borrowed the wristwatch idea and adopted it for men. That way soldiers wouldn’t have to reach for their watch at all, as they were wearing it. A simple twist of their arm and they could see the time.

WWI soldier with Watch

My experience

When I founded the Marketing Resource Group or MRG, I brought this essence of innovation to the consumer packaged goods and healthcare industries. Prior to MRG, I owned The Sales Support Company which was a contract retail merchandising company. In other words an outsourced sales force. I had 150 people working coast-coast performing various sales functions in our client’s smaller retail customers.

Because our merchandisers needed to travel from store to store to perform their duties, wages and travel costs represented a significant portion of our costs. Raising prices was difficult as it would dilute the cost/benefit argument we had put forth. So, after eight years sustainable profits were elusive, so I sold the company.

My innovation

One of the reasons that made my decision to sell The Sales Support Company easy, was that I knew the industry still needed to service these accounts but needed cost efficient solution, which I had been quietly testing for over a year.

Once clear of my obligations with my previous company, I launched MRG to provide our clients with an alternative solution to service these accounts.

So instead of having an individual physically visit a store, we began telemarketing these accounts as a means to communicate and solicit orders. As an aside, we provided other services that previously required a sales representative to perform, but now were done remotely.

I knew of only one company that was doing anything remotely similar and that was Kimberley-Clark, the makers of brands like Huggies and Kleenex.

The big difference was that they were selling their own products, whereas we would be a sales as a service model, representing any number of companies and brands, albeit never at the same time.

Aside from Kimberley-Clark this hadn’t been attempted before and therefore it took a bit of effort to get buy-in from our clients.

Eventually, we convinced enough clients of the merits and gained the necessary momentum to make it a viable business that I owned for 17 years until I sold it.

This innovation had numerous benefits and few downsides for our customers. Considering that we handled what I referred to as their orphaned accounts, those retail establishment that due to annual purchases or geographic location, received no sales coverage from their existing salesforces.

Foremost, our reach was unlimited. If they had a phone, we could contact them, regardless of where they were located, even in the Artic.

Innovation through adaptation

So let’s be honest. I didn’t invent anything here. I simply took an existing service, telemarketing, and applied it to an industry that wasn’t using it. There is a saying “good artist borrow ideas great artist steal ideas.

Is that not the purpose of innovation? How many so called innovations, add no value to the end user and only add confusion.

First and foremost, innovation needs to improve the experience. But change for the sake of change is rarely a good idea. The best way to determine the value of your innovation is to ask your customers and not just your power users.

Also consider that instead of more features, maybe consider fewer and see if that improves the user experience.

You may also enjoy SBM #107 Beware of the whale

Get More LIFE Out of Your Business

You shouldn’t be the hardest working person in your company.

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