I've been fortunate enough to be the chair of an annual innovation conference for 10 years, and in that time we've always had a student competition.  One team's idea has always "stuck" with me, because it was so simple yet so insightful.  Two years ago during the student competition one student presented us with a regular jar of peanut butter.  Where's the innovation?  I thought.  Then he twisted the bottom of the jar and the bottom of the jar rose on a spindle, bringing the peanut butter closer to the mouth of the jar.  And I thought, wow!  And then I thought:  why hasn't anyone done this before?

It's a Way of Seeing.

I think no one had done something like this before because most of us become accustomed to the way things are.  Jars are rigid and made of glass and plastic - they don't have moving parts.  We encounter these screw like concepts all the time, yet no one, as far as I can tell, had decided to put a moveable base into a jar to improve access to the contents of the jar.  In other words, the inventor of the device saw something differently.

The team also exercised another very important and powerful innovation mechanism - combining attributes or features.  They combined an existing, static jar wall with a screwing base.  Both of these technologies existed but no one had brought them together for this purpose.

The Insights, Not the Technology.

It's insights like this, seeing things differently or combining existing but disparate capabilities, than drive far more innovation than sexy new technologies.  The beautiful part about their innovation is that it doesn't change the package much, makes it far more user-friendly and isn't all that expensive.  It doesn't rely on new technology but does solve an age-old problem.  As with many innovations it is the ability to see differently and through the eyes of the customer that matter far more than the technology implemented.

How to See Differently.

Which brings us to the question - how do we "see" differently?  How do we train our minds to look at challenges, issues and everyday barriers and roadblocks and see solutions that others have overlooked, ignored or simply tolerated?

I've often been a fan of the quote by Shaw who said that all progress in life is due to the unreasonable man, because he (or she) doesn't adapt themselves to the world as they find it.  Good innovators see differently because they refuse to tolerate inadequate, poorly thought out or incomplete solutions.  When you encounter solutions that don't work or don't provide the service or benefit you expect, rather than ignoring the failure or tolerating it, ask how you might make it better.  This is the crux of seeing differently and it will make all the difference.