Eight Steps to Affordable Innovation

What CUs can learn about innovation from a French Canadian singer.

March 23, 2011

Innovation doesn’t require vast resources—but it requires you to start somewhere, says Denise Gabel, chief innovation officer for the Filene Research Institute, addressing the 18th Annual CUNA Marketing & Business Development Conference in Las Vegas.

She suggests taking an eight-step approach to innovation:

1. Start. We have too many meetings where analyze everything to death. Just do it.

2. Clarify. What problems do you want to solve?

3. Dream. You have to think big to come up with big ideas. “If you don’t, you won’t come up with anything that’s uniquely good,” Gabel says.

4. Shape. Fine-tune your big ideas and bring them into focus.

5. Test. Take a small step to see how your idea works—try it for a week, for example.

Denise Gabel
The more people resist an idea, the more you're onto something, says Denise Gabel.

You can judge how successful an idea may be by peoples’ reactions to it.

“The more people dig in their heels against it, the more you’re onto something,” Gabel says. “If everyone embraces your idea right away, you’re not thinking big enough.”

6. Pilot. Introduce a pilot program and decide how you’ll quantity the results. “Keep it simple; don’t make it too hard,” Gabel advises. “Keep in mind it’s innovation on shoestring at this point. At some point you’ll need to feed your innovation.”

7. Tell. Share your success. People like to hear about your idea and see evidence that it works.

8. Engage others in your idea. This improves the process.

No one better exemplifies “innovation on a shoestring” than Bernard LaChance, a singer from Montreal who joined Gabel on stage. Two years ago, he parlayed a YouTube video, shot in front of the Chicago Theater, into an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

At the time, he had no record deal, manager, or agent, and he sold CDs on a card table in Times Square. He learned English by watching the sitcom “Friends.”

LaChance explained how he’d sell tickets to his shows wearing a T-shirt with the venue’s seating chart. People would choose their seats and fill in the appropriate box on his shirt with a marker.

LaChance’s advice for innovating on a shoestring:

  • Do it yourself. When LaChance was 19 years old, he produced 5,000 cassette tapes and rented his high school theater for a concert. The singer sold all of the cassettes and concert tickets himself.
  • Make the media talk about your story. If your story is unique enough, the media will cover it.
  • Think big.

“Everyone has a dream, but most people don’t follow it,” LaChance says. “No matter what your dreams are, just start somewhere.”