What does innovation look like? Is innovation something that only big companies like Apple and Google can do? Absolutely not! Innovation is simply finding a way to provide a “little something extra” to your customers with things they value. Every organization can be innovative.

Want to see innovation? The secret of radical innovative starts with roadside bathrooms.  Yes, I know, roadside bathrooms are gross and you’d rather not look too closely at them; however, at Irving Oil gas stations, the bathrooms are actually very clean. Irving Oil promises its customers “really really clean washrooms” and backs that promise up by cleaning them every half hour. The bathrooms have predominately white walls with soothing nature images (which are also featured in outdoor billboards promoting their “point of difference” — a very eye-catching and engaging strategy).

Pumping gas is about as mundane an experience as one can have, yet Irving Oil was able to reinvent the gas station experience simply by cleaning their bathrooms and giving customers a great reason to come to their gas stations. That is what innovation looks like.

How did Irving Oil accomplish this? They identified their customer touch points and improved them by offering unexpected services. They aren’t the only company to do this. Take clothing retailer Uniqlo, which offers free altering when you buy pants. Coffee shop chain Financier coupled coffee with food by offering small pastries for free with purchase of a cup of coffee. Dashing Diva Nail salons in New York City are starting to offer “girls night out” events where your mani-pedi comes with a free cosmo/martini. That’s not just innovative, it’s great business.

Want to differentiate yourself from your competitors? Take a good look at how your customers interact with you and your competitors. What are your customer touch points? Identify your customer touch points and then “reinvent” them, just like Irving Oil and Uniqlo did. Innovations in these touch points will help differentiate you from your competitors and give your customers more reasons to buy from you.

It’s all well and good to simply say, “Go and innovate,” but how does one go about innovating? Michelle Greenwald, CEO of Marketing Visualized, explained exactly how to do that in a meeting of the NJ chapter of MENG (Marketing Executives Networking Group) earlier this year.

Greenwald’s first rule of innovation is there is no one way to innovate. That being said, there are a few things that need to be present for innovation: 1, time set aside for innovation, 2, a good “mental environment,” and 3, plenty of stimuli.

Innovation isn’t magic—one cannot simply manifest innovation on demand. Innovation requires time for thinking and brainstorming. Ideas can take while to grow into innovations and it is important to allow time for ideation for yourself and your staff.

A good “mental environment” is essential for ideation. What makes up a good mental environment? For starters, encourage risk-taking instead of penalizing it. An idea may be too risky to implement, but other, more useful ideas can come from it. If your staff knows you won’t punish them for bringing you a risky idea, they will be more creative and you will also get some great (and safe) ideas from them as well.

Now, how do you get ideas? Think of your mind as a garden except instead of tomatoes, you’re growing ideas. Tomatoes need water and sunshine to grow and ideas need a variety of stimuli to grow. That stimulus varies from person to person, but in general, it should include exposure to new and different things. Remember the colorful gum drop-shapes Apple’s early iMacs? Would you believe that that idea came from a trip to a jellybean factory? Look outside your industry for ideas and see if the novelty doesn’t stimulate some innovative ideas for your organization!

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