One of my company's best recent breakthroughs came from a conversation with someone completely outside the retail world: a health care consultant named Ellen, who happens to be my sister.
A few years ago, I was working on the creation of West Elm Market, a smaller store that would sell things other than home furnishings. I wanted these markets to carry staples you could find in a traditional neighborhood corner store, things like laundry soap and peanut butter. I figured we could stand out by featuring small-batch, artisanal versions of these products.
I told my sister I felt nostalgic for the days when you knew your neighborhood shopkeepers and they knew you, and I thought my customers might share that feeling. But my saying I'd stock the markets with artisanal versions of anything a customer might need led Ellen to challenge me: Wouldn't people prefer a smaller selection of local goods to an overwhelming collection of products from all over?
Ellen had seen the growing demand for local, consumer-centered products in a different industry--concierge medicine, which is becoming more popular for those who can afford it. That demand is due to several factors, including the stressful and alienating user experiences common to the health care system, and the government overhaul, which requires more active attention from consumers.
Ellen believes these factors are making people crave a better relationship with their doctor. Patients want their primary care physician to be the center of their community-based health care. And her arguments made me realize that embracing the "local" was not a retail-specific trend but a major lifestyle shift across consumers' lives. Soon the idea of selling localized products started to make more sense to me than offering a grocery store's worth of quotidian goods.
Ultimately, this led me to create a " West Elm Local" strategy for all of our U.S. and Canadian stores. To truly be local, we can't run this program out of our corporate office, so each store manager is responsible for finding local artists and makers, and for creating product assortments that reflect their communities. We now carry more than 4,000 local products from more than 500 makers.
Since my sibling-inspired brainstorm, I've noticed many of our makers using a similar approach. I particularly admire that of Andrew Molleur, a fine arts ceramic designer in Kingston, New York, who takes in as much feedback as he can. After thinking through a design--what he calls "failing in his head"--Andrew brings a rough draft to two groups.
In Andrew's micro group are his closest relations--friends, loved ones, and those working in his field, who can comment on the logistics of the work. His macro group includes those who can come at his design from a different perspective--former colleagues and acquaintances in unrelated fields. In both groups, Andrew includes only people who aren't afraid to say no to him. Together, the micro and macro insights become part of his design strategy.
Getting out of your own head--and out of your business circles--to workshop your ideas is the true path to innovation. You just have to believe that good ideas can come from anywhere. Don't stick to people who think like you; creative conversations aren't meant to be lovefests. Engage with people who aren't afraid to challenge your thought process or criticize your ideas.
No matter the size or nature of your business, confining creative communication to like-minded colleagues is not apt to teach you new things. If you think of your original idea as kindling for a potential bonfire, diverse commentary can create the spark.