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3 Innovation Lessons From Saturday Morning Cartoons

Classic cartoon characters possess the habits of successful innovators.

Think about it. What is it you remember best about the cartoons you watched as kid? I'll bet it's the catch phrases various characters exclaimed. These phrases are not only memorable, they also offer timeless advice, especially for entrepreneurs and innovators.

What's up, Doc?

Bugs Bunny may be best known for chomping his carrot, but he also possesses a keen interest in the people and things around him. His perpetual question, "what's up, doc?" conveys not only a native curiosity to figure out what's going on in his world, but also, albeit often tongue-in-cheek, a concern or interest in the individuals he meets in the course of a day. Such curiosity is the stuff new ideas of borne of.

Indeed, the best innovative insights often come from watching, without any preconceived notions or expectations, the way people navigate their world. By becoming an acute observer, you may learn more about what makes consumers tick, and therefore develop more innovative products, than you would if you went back to school for a psychology degree. Cultivate a sense of wonder. Embrace curiosity; be open, playful, and persistent; don't put a high value on "the way things are supposed to be done" or the way others have done them.

The story of A. G. Lafley, CEO and President of Procter & Gamble, and his pilgrimage to Venezuela illustrates what I mean. This is a man who had tremendous amounts of data at his fingertips. Yet, this wasn't enough for Lafley, who had his own "what's up, doc?" moment when he invited himself into consumers' homes, and watched and listened to them talk about the products they used. Lafley augmented his statistics with observational research and learned surprisingly that personal care products were more about entertainment than about hygiene.

And now for something we hope you'll really like.

Rocky and Bullwinkle would introduce the sketches in their program with the wry, "and now for something we hope you'll really like." I have no way of knowing for sure if the marketers at the Chinese appliance manufacturer Haier learned from the moose and squirrel, but it's clear the duo's pledge could be Haier's corporate motto.

After Haier began selling appliances in rural China, the company received numerous complaints about its washing machines clogging. Haier responded by sending engineers out to pinpoint the cause of the problem. It turned out that the rural Chinese were using Haier washing machines to wash not only clothes, but also vegetables from their gardens.

Instead of telling customers that they were using the machines incorrectly and refusing to honor the warranties, the company saw an opportunity. The Haier development team came up with a new wash cycle that was designed specifically for vegetables, and fitted the new machines with larger drainpipes that could handle bigger pieces of dirt. Haier even put new labels on washing machines sold in Sichuan that read: "Mainly for washing clothes, sweet potatoes and peanuts." In other words, Haier gave its consumers something they'd really like. And like it they did: Haier generates some 40% of its sales from the rural market alone.

That's all folks.

Porky Pig wrapped up his old cartoons with a cheery "that's all folks." Simple.

Simplicity, or the means by which disparate elements can be combined into a pleasing and harmonious whole that the public can readily latch on and respond to, is a key factor in the appeal and success of any innovation. This is especially true in the realm of consumer products, whether they are technical in nature or not.

Steve Jobs understood the value of simplicity and made it a hallmark of Apple's success. When Jobs returned as CEO in 1997, one of his first directives was to to pare down Apple's output to four categories: the MacBook (originally called iBook), the iPhone, the iPod, and Mac desktop computers. Sales of this limited product line soon outpaced all the company's previous offerings by a wide margin, as the company was concentrating on a handful of highly coveted products. Apple was back in the news and was making record profits.

And that may be all--but it's a lot.

Last updated: Aug 26, 2014

DEBRA KAYE | Columnist | partner, Lucule

Debra Kaye is a Partner at the innovation consultancy Lucule and a former CEO of TBWAItaly. Her book, Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections that Lead to Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation, was The Washington Post's Leadership Book of the Week. A frequent commentator on American Public Radio's "Marketplace," she also writes for Fast Company and is a sought after speaker at venues such as SXSW.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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