Getting A Grip With Handrail

We are now at a juncture in this Mental Protein series where we should pause to take stock of what we have learned so far on this journey. We started by understanding the silent shifts that are changing our landscape and making competition more keen than it has ever been in the past. The second part of this series introduced Analytical and Critical Thinking tools that are designed to allow the innovator to analyse and evaluate the massive amount of information that bombards him every day.

These tools play a key role in separating the signal from the noise – getting to the heart of the truth by stripping away beliefs and opinions from the facts. In part three, we have been examining various tools that help us to think constructively – how to substitute negative thinking patterns that focus on obstacles and difficulties with Constructive Thinking skills that find the good in every situation.

The objective of this series is simple – learning the tools and techniques that allow the innovator to make a profit from creativity. Creativity on it’s own may not have commercial value, so the innovator has to find ways and means to monetize creativity. Just like a craftsman relies on the various tools in his toolkit to help him do his job, the innovator uses a whole array of thinking tools to sharpen his mental saw. Just like the craftsman’s tools are simple and pretty basic, so are the innovator’s thinking tools.

What matters is not the complexity or sophistication of the tools but the skill with which both the craftsman and the innovator apply and use them. A chisel and hammer can produce either a masterpiece or a hideous sculpture, the end result depends on the skill of the craftsman. The innovator’s dilemma is no different and for him to succeed, he has to consistently apply the thinking tools introduced in this series in a systematic and structured manner.

The core issue is about creating wealth from creativity. This is the simplest but most effective definition of innovation. The innovator is focussed on how he can create and maximise profit by coming up with a novel idea, implement it and execute it with precision. If the creative idea remains at the conceptual stage in the head of the innovator, he is not an innovator but a dreamer. Innovation is not just about coming up with great ideas but also about their effective implementation and execution. It is true that not all innovation is about wealth as innovation includes the social and artistic domains too. So although the focal point of this series is clearly commercial, the ideas and tools discussed here are equally applicable to the other two domains as well.

The tenth Constructive Thinking tool is Handrail. The Handrail guides the innovator to ensure that he does not go off on a tangent and get distracted by what may seem like a good idea but one that may not have commercial potential. Like the other thinking tools that have been introduced, Handrail is deceptively simple but immensely powerful. Handrail states that there are only three reasons to innovator – to generate new or additional wealth from an opportunity, reduce cost along a particular dimension or lastly, enhance the customer experience beyond what it is now. If your aim is profit and your idea does not fit one of these three Handrail concepts, it should not be pursued any further.

Generating wealth (by exploiting new opportunities) and reducing cost are quite apparent and form the basis of the bulk of innovations introduced in the market. When an innovator sees a gap in the market and attempts to fill that gap with a new product or service, he is following the first Handrail concept. When an innovator finds a creative way to reduce the price of his product or service, he is following the second Handrail concept. The serious innovator however, always ventures to the third Handrail concept and improves his customer’s experience. This is easier said than done, one has only to look at various daily situations to quickly realise that this Handrail concept is routinely ignored by the masses.

Take the situation where you are asked to fill up a form in a government department, for example. Almost every form asks for your Identity Card number as well as your date and place of birth. Haven’t the government officials figured out yet that the first six digits of your Identity Card number actually represent your date of birth? Why are you asked to supply your date of birth when that information is embedded in your Identity Card number? Don’t they know that the 7th and 8th digits of your Identity Card are codes for the state you were born in? This is a classic case of ignoring the customer’s experience and focusing on internal processes.

Another example is the complicated arrival card that has to be filled up when you travel to a foreign country. Haven’t you noticed that most of the information you are asked to fill up can actually be found on your passport – your passport number, place of issue as well as the expiry date? To make matters worse, you have to enter this information in at least two sections of the arrival card. Where is the desire or thought of enhancing the customer’s experience?

What about the additional processes that companies put in to resolve a minor situation created by a small proportion of their customers? One restaurant in Penang found a customer who was taking advantage of their buffet by stuffing food in her bag. The restaurant immediately initiated a rule where all customers had to leave their bags with the security person at the main door. This is a case in point where a situation created by a small minority ends up inconveniencing the silent majority. The innovator resists such a knee-jerk reaction and uses the Handrail as a guide to ensure that he stays on the path and does not stray into undesired territory.

Source: Dr. Kamal Jit Singh is the regional director of British Telecom’s Asian Research Centre and specialises in using innovation as a strategy for increasing competitiveness. He also teaches strategic management to an MBA class in Singapore. Comments: singhk@pd.jaring.my