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3 Tricks to Help You Innovate While Traveling

November 29, 2011

Confession: For years, I followed what I presumed to be the consultant’s code: When you are traveling, stick to conference rooms, airports, hotel rooms, and corporate offices. Anything else is a distraction. I’d even avoid “wasting time” on the hotel restaurant. Sure, you might pay a bit more for room service, but you maximize your efficiency by only leaving your desk (and your laptop) to answer the door.

Well, I have reformed. And I think those of you interested in strengthening your innovation muscles should make sure trips to new places actually involve experiencing those new places.

In their McKinsey-award winning 2009 Harvard Business Review article,Hal Gregersen and Jeffrey Dyer describe how new experiences can help innovators make connections that strengthen their innovation muscles. One famous example is how Howard Shultz’s observations during a trip to Italy helped him develop Starbucks’ breakthrough strategy in the 1980s. Dyer and Gregersen also note that people who take overseas assignments — particularly those who stay long enough to allow immersion into local culture — gain critical advantages that help them to successfully innovate.

In this spirit of immersion, I now try to do three things on any trip. The first is to go to a local restaurant — preferably one not located in a hotel. This gives me a quick read on the local economy and how people interact with each other. Are they boisterous or reserved? Are there a few large groups or many couples or individuals? Do children join or stay home?

The second is to see where people live. Staying in the bubble of business focused hotels makes it hard to develop empathy about the reality of life in a particular market. Wandering around residential areas can be very eye-opening.

Finally, I love to browse the aisles of a local grocery store. In Seoul last week, I noted how I could see familiar brands, like Coke and Gillette. I also saw heavily localized brands and food products that you’d never see in the West (kimchi, for example). I noticed how expensive many forms of fresh fruit seemed to be. I also saw novel product categories. For example, the beauty aisle was bursting with skin whitening solutions. (This is true across Asia, and I keep telling my wife I should try them just to see what happens. I think that scares her more than a little.)

It’s hard to get the stimuli that can spur innovative thinking solely from your desk in a hotel while scarfing down room service; it’s harder to understand what customers can’t articulate without spending time with them. Make the time for new experiences. It will be worth the investment.

Scott AnthonyScott Anthony

Scott leads Innosight’s Asian operations. His fourth book on innovation, The Little Black Book of Innovation, will be released in early 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottDAnthony.

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