Many of the rules that apply in businesses were set years ago and have endured by force of habit. A good example is the QWERTY keyboard, which is in use on all desktop computers. The original QWERTY layout of keys on the typewriter keyboard was designed in the 1870s to slow down the speed of typing because fast operators were causing typewriter keys to jam together. By putting the most commonly used letters e, a, i, o away from the index fingers of the hands, speed was reduced and jams were avoided. Those mechanical jams are long gone but we are stuck with a rule for a keyboard layout that is outdated and inappropriate. How many of the rules in your organisation are QWERTY standards – set up for circumstances that no longer apply today?
If you can find a way to rewrite the rules of the game so that it suits you rather than your competitors then you can gain a remarkable advantage. In the late 1970s the Swiss watch industry was suffering from fierce competition from the Japanese. Major brands like Omega, Longines and Tissot were in serious trouble. Nicholas Hayek took dramatic action. He merged two of the largest Swiss watch manufacturers ASUAG and SSIH to form a new company, Swatch. It took a radically different approach to watch design, creating a low-cost, high-tech, artistic, and emotional watch. Within five years the new company was the largest watch-maker in the world. Swatch rewrote the rules of the watch industry. Swiss watches had competed against mass produced brands by focussing on tradition and quality but Swatch changed the parameters by making watches that were fun, fashionable, and collectable.
Every business operates in an environment of written and unwritten rules. Many of these boundaries and restrictions are self-imposed and accepted without questioning. Often it is the newcomer to an industry who can ask the question, ‘What would happen if we broke the rules?’
This is what Richard Branson did when he launched Virgin Atlantic to take on the might of British Airways, American Airlines and Pan Am. They all played by the same rules; first class passengers enjoyed the best service, business passengers received adequate service and economy passengers got very few frills. Branson eliminated first class and instead gave first class service to business passengers. He introduced innovations such as free drinks for economy passengers, videos in headrests and limousine service to the airport.
The law of the land has to be obeyed but most business rules are there to be broken. Anita Roddick, founder of the retail chain The Body Shop, succeeded by deliberately doing the opposite of what the industry experts did. She saw that most pharmacies were stuffy places that sold toiletries, perfumes and medicinal creams in expensive packaging and pretty bottles. She did the opposite by packaging the goods in Body Shop stores in cheap, plastic bottles with plain labels. It saved cost and it made a statement that the contents of the packages were what mattered. The Body Shop was seen as natural, spiritual, and in tune with an environmentally-conscious consumer.
Picasso broke the rules on what a face should look like and Gaudi broke the rules on what a building should look like. To achieve radical innovation you have to challenge all the assumptions that govern how things should look in your environment. Business is not like sport with well-defined rules and referees. It is more like art. It is rife with opportunity for the lateral thinker who can create new ways to provide the goods and services that customers want.