Five innovation case studies that started life in unlikely places

Innovation is all about the blending of ideas to create new platforms and systems. If you're still not sure what this process looks like, innovation case studies are a great place to start.

Charlie de Rusett
by Charlie de Rusett

Here at Idea Drop, we’re concerned with systematising abstract notions like creativity and invention. Our goal is to harness the latent creative talent in your business to drive business value, generate revenue and save money. When we talk to clients about these ideas, it can be hard for them to see how they translate into concrete value for their business. That’s why we love talking about real-life innovation case studies; they’re fantastic illustrations of specific ways of thinking that can result in dramatic breakthroughs. When add in our tried-and-tested methods for measuring innovation, things start to click.

The amazing innovations we’ve picked out below all had unlikely origins. What’s important, though, is the underlying processes that led to their conception. If you’re able to recognise these processes, they can be captured and reproduced to create meaningful change systems in your organisation. All you need to do is build spaces in which the five facets of innovation – problem-solving, repurposing, experimentation, observation and enquiry – can flourish. Let’s take a look below at how these concepts have changed our technological landscape.

Problem-solving: paper clips

The story of the paper clip is a fascinating tale of necessity breeding invention. In 1867, laundries and coat rooms all over the U.S. were in desperate need of a way to attach paper tickets to clothing items without damage. Silks, lace and fine cloth were prone to damage, and businesses found it impossible to label them without extra holes. It was a young man from Pennsylvania named Samuel B Fay who came up with an extremely simple method of twisting wire into a spring shape.

Key takeaway: What’s interesting to note is that this problem had existed for a long time before Fay came up with his solution, leading undamaged clothes, happier customers and lots of saved man hours… Sometimes issues are easily solved, but hard to spot.

Repurposing: the escalator

Though there have been various patents filed for escalators over the years, the first working version was actually a fairground ride at Coney Island in 1892. Though the ride was popular, its inventor, Jesse W. Reno, saw past this initial implementation to greater use value. He realised the benefits it could provide over elevators which, at the time, required supervision and had limited capacities. Reno later sold his idea to an elevator company who began to distribute it across the world.

Key takeaway: Think carefully about how you can take tools and techniques from one part of your business and repurpose them for another. Collaboration, transparency and idea sharing are key to this process.

Experimentation: matches

The match as we know it today is the result of decades of experimentation and incremental innovation. Court ladies in 6th-century China would use sulphur sticks to light lamps during the night. In 1669, the flammable nature of phosphorus was discovered and it was often added to sulphuric acid to make flame. However, it wasn’t until 1826 when John Walker, an English chemist, was experimenting with such chemicals and accidentally lit some from the friction of a stone hearth. He immediately realised the potential and invented the friction match.

Key takeaway: If you want new solutions, you have to give your team the space to experiment and play. Dedicate time to experimentation and create an environment in which accidents, mistakes and failures are ok.

Observation: Velcro

The invention of Velcro is a wonderful story that demonstrates just how careful observation of your surroundings can spark enormous innovation. In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral was on a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps when he noticed both his trousers and the dog’s fur were covered in spores from a burdock plant. On close inspection, he noticed how the spores had tiny hooks that would pick up fibres from his clothing. Thus, the hook-and-loop fastener was born – the technology behind Velcro.

Key takeaway: Mestral was successful because he looked closely at something that was largely ignored by others. Sometimes, the opportunities in your business are hidden in the most overlooked areas. Question everything and remember that ideas can come from anywhere.

Enquiry: the microwave

Innovative ideas often strike us when existing technologies pique our curiosity. The microwave oven is a great example of one such idea. In 1945, an engineer named Percy Spencer was working on a short wavelength radar that included a component called a cavity magnetron. Whilst working close to the device, Percy noticed that a chocolate bar he was keeping in his pocket had melted. Enquiring further, he discovered that the microwaves emitted by the magnetron could rapidly increase the core temperature of an object. After a series of experiments, including cooking popcorn and an egg (which exploded), Spencer filed a patent for his microwave oven.

Key takeaway: The potential of new technologies and systems can often surprise us. To get the most out of them, we need to learn as much as we can. Give your team the opportunity to study the tools they work with and enquire into new ways of working with them.

Although they may seem like lucky occurrences, each of these innovations happened due to the particular mindset of their inventors. If you’d like to learn more about how we train our clients to think innovatively, get in touch at any time.

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