The 5 Innovation Gaps

As integrators, at the bare minimum, we are value added resellers of AV equipment. We make AV systems more valuable than the sum of their parts through expertise in installation, maintenance, and long term support of technology.

However as prices decrease, all-in-one products replace multiple SKUs, and systems come preconfigured out of the box, that value add decreases as well.

This means there is pressure on the integration market to innovate, both in system design and in business model, in order to maintain revenues and a relevant place in the customer value chain.

But is innovation part of most integrator’s identity? Where I work now at XTG, our mission is to innovate, and we have a culture that embraces freedom to fail, knowing that if we are going to do what has never been done, we’re going to make some mistakes along the way, and that’s expected.

However, I also worked at a furniture dealer as director of technology sales where I was specifically told, and I quote, “Mark, our job is not to set trends, it’s to capitalize on them.”  Talk about a huge range in the “innovation” mindset.

So in order for us to embrace or role as potential innovators and capitalize on the bright future we all share, I wanted to talk about the five gaps I think we need to bridge in order to be more innovative.

business idea innovation

The Identity Gap

The first gap I see is one I teased above. That is the identity gap. How do we see ourselves as integrators? Are we resellers of equipment? Are we a subcontractor to the construction industry? Are we subject matter experts leading customer thinking? Self talk can be very defining, and how we see and present ourselves can either till the soil of creativity or spray Round-Up on every new idea that sprouts out of the ground.

The first job is to see innovation as part of our job. Yes, manufacturers do the product innovation, but they don’t do it in a vacuum. The good ones utilize feedback from the market, our customers, and our integration firms to design the next evolution of their products.

However, besides giving feedback to manufacturers, we have the opportunity to innovate our business models, programming, service and support offerings, and processes as well to create new value in the market, create efficiencies and higher profitability in our businesses, or (hopefully) BOTH.

The Mindset Gap

Once we see ourselves as innovators, we have to then create the right mindset to innovate. The first step to this is getting rid of all the technical debt, sunk costs, and restrictive thinking we often fall into.

Forget about preferred manufacturers, existing staff certifications, and existing customer standards. If we set these boundaries on our thinking, innovation will never happen.

Start with the desired customer outcome, use divergent thinking to explore EVERY way to accomplish that goal, and then work backwards toward a preferred solution.

Blue sky thinking is the first step toward innovation.

The Knowledge Gap

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein

Even though the origin may not actually be Einstein, the quote itself holds true. You can’t innovate a process if you don’t understand all the steps. You can’t innovate a product unless you know how it works. ‘

A big part of innovation is isolating blind spots, and then educating around them or hiring to bridge them. This will help you to avoid recreating a product that already exists, investing in something the market already rejected, or spending resources doing a part of the work that may have already been done.

This knowledge will help define what paths may be the most fruitful to pursue as well.

The Skill Gap

The skill gap is probably the easiest to understand, but may be difficult to solve for, especially if you have chosen to do something completely new. You can see yourself as an innovator, have the right mindset and knowledge to generate the idea, but as they say, “vison without execution is just hallucination”.

Once you’ve bridged the knowledge gap and fully understand the problem, you’ll have a much better idea of the skillsets needed to execute, and then you will need to either upskill existing staff or start hiring those skill sets in order to get the idea off the ground.

The Culture Gap

Finally, even if you bridge all of the gaps above, you may still fall short if you don’t create the culture necessary to support the innovation journey. You’ll often see large corporations spin their innovation engines off as separate business units or incubators.  You see this with the Google Moonshot Factory, Walmart Labs, etc. This allows the core business to proceed with its historic charter, creating revenues that fuel the innovation happening in these smaller business units.

It also allows these incubators to set their own rules and culture. I mentioned Freedom to Fail as a core value. Other cultural shifts may be to get away from KPIs around “utilization” for instance. An engineer who has to be billable 80% of the time will get stuck in production work, copying and pasting old designs or leaning on manufacturers to engineer portions of their systems just to keep up with workload. This hardly creates the “white space” needed for creativity and divergent thinking.

There are lots of other attributes of innovative culture including techniques from improv like “Yes, and…” to keep ideas flowing and not grounding every new idea immediately in practicality.

My final questions for you as an integrator are, “Who are you? Are you an innovator? Are you a value creator?”

If not, how can you start bridging the gaps above to become one?