Sandpaper: An Essential Item for the Corporate Innovator’s Toolbox

By Scott Kirsner |  July 20, 2016

I was speaking this week with the leadership team of one of the world’s largest professional services firms, at their annual off-site.

One of the most interesting comments from the group was this: “We don’t have creativity or risk-taking in our blood. Yet all the advice we get about corporate innovation sounds like it is telling us to come up with clean-sheet-of-paper ideas, and look for opportunities like an entrepreneur would. But that isn’t part of our culture — and neither is a tolerance for failure.”

Fantastic point. And it’s true of most large organizations.

It’s why we often point out that innovation teams can deliver incredible value, with much less investment and risk-taking, if they have a few sheets of sandpaper in their toolbox, not just blank sheets of paper.

Sandpaper makes things smoother and more streamlined. It gets rid of splintery bits that can cause major pain. You put a little sweat into using sandpaper, and you get quick, tangible results. (Clean sheets of paper are wonderful, but they are only the starting point in what can be a long journey.)

The sandpaper approach can involve:

  •  Talking to customers — outside of traditional focus groups or surveys — to understand things they dislike about working with you. What causes them headaches? If another company just made X easier, would they be tempted to abandon you?
  •  Letting employees tell you what they waste time on. This can lead you to discover more efficient tools, processes to be redesigned, or things to simply stop doing.
  •  Interviewing business partners to understand the ways you might reduce friction in their interactions with you — and perhaps what they see other companies they work with doing to increase speed and efficiency.
  •  Scouting for new tools you can use internally, or channels for communicating with customers, that get rid of the rough edges in the way you do business. These may come from startups, and they may come from established players, but often the aversion to deploying new technologies (or learning how to use them) keeps big companies using ancient, inefficient stuff for far too long.

Like all innovation efforts, the sandpaper approach needs objectives. In the case of this professional services firm, I suggested one goal might be to provide high-quality guidance with fewer hassles (like negotiating complex contracts) than any of their competitors. For a hotel, it might be getting a business traveler into her room and onto the wifi network with no standing in line and no calls to the front desk. For a restaurant, it might be delivering a dining experience that makes you feel even better taken care of than you do at your mom’s table.

If you took the sandpaper approach to any of those goals, what would failure look like? “We only cut the length of our average contract back-and-forth with clients by three working days.” “We only reduced the lines at our hotel’s front desk by an average of 20 percent.” You get the picture. This isn’t the same sort of failure as, “We invented a new product and put it on the shelves of 10,000 retail stores and no one bought it.”

At the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference this month, I heard the Chief Digital Officer of McDonald’s talking about how he’s trying to apply sandpaper to the chain’s ordering process. Guess what? Panera already began rolling that out in 2014, with its “Panera 2.0” stores and mobile ordering process, which allows me to place an order for my favorite meal with a few clicks and grab it from a shelf in the store. Disney’s CEO off-handedly mentioned the crowds at the company’s incredibly-successful theme parks, including one that just opened in Shanghai. Long lines are great for the company, but bad for the visitors. A sandpaper opportunity.

We often give tech companies like Uber too much credit for being brilliant, and too little credit for sanding every last rough edge off their products. I once complained about a taxi driver I felt was unsafe, calling a dedicated phone number I saw glued to the plexiglass divider. No one ever responded to my voicemail. If I reach out to Uber with any kind of complaint, I typically get an e-mailed reply from a human within 10 minutes, offering to set the problem straight.

Back to the off-site with the professional services firm… We all agreed that in 2016, some of the key competitive differentiators for their organization will be listening to clients better than anyone else; attracting and retaining the world’s best top brains; speed; and simplicity.

That’s true for many industries. And to get there, you may want to embrace an innovation strategy that seeks to eliminate the things that aggravate employees or customers, which can pay off in a shorter timeframe, with very little risk. It’s not that you need to pick the sandpaper strategy instead of  the clean sheet of paper strategy. But the former can help you chalk up some early wins as you invest more time and resources in cultivating the ideas that emerge from the latter.