With better information, drivers drive better. An innovation in motorcycle brake lights could make roadways safer for everyone, but it took three young motorcyclists—not one of the dozens of existing motorcycle manufacturers—to develop and market the answer. VoloLights is an aftermarket product that attaches to a motorcycle’s rear fender and using an embedded accelerometer flashes different light patterns to indicate deceleration.

Motorcyclists often slow down without touching their brakes. Downshifting and coasting are easy and fuel-efficient ways to decelerate, but only using the brake pedal activates the brake light. Without that warning, drivers find it difficult to perceive that a motorcyclist has begun to slow down, or how rapidly. This same design flaw exists in every motorcycle model on the market.

Rear end accidents are still the most common form of accidents accounting for almost one third of all collisions in the U.S. So why hasn’t anyone at the big brand motorcycle companies noticed this? A significant competitive differentiator with tangible, potentially life-saving benefits is right under their noses.

Why is it so difficult for big companies to innovate? In my strategic relationship consulting work with global organizations, I have observed three main reasons:

1. Corporate Inertia

Organizations tend toward inertia by their very nature. The larger the organization, the more unshakeable the beliefs and routines that keep it stable. You can’t tell me nobody at Big Name Motorcycle Company rides a motorcycle. So why hasn’t anyone brought an idea like VoloLights to their innovation hub? Could it be because they’re so busy fiddling with incremental improvements? Many brands introduce new models on a regular basis and not one features a startling breakthrough in safety like the VoloLight? Inertia keeps organizations spinning along, but holds them to a very narrow path.

2. Preserving the Status Quo

It’s easy to blame the leaders, but the problem extends to every level. If no one will challenge the status quo, true innovation will seldom occur. Whether it is hiring criteria that under-value diversity, or a planning process that prevents out-of-the-box thinking, or budget criteria that denies the needed resources for experimentation, big companies too frequently preserve the current state of affairs at the expense of innovation. VoloLights didn’t come out of that kind of company. It couldn’t.

3. Dangerous Assumptions

Each of us brings a perceptual lens to the way we think, perceive, and act. Whatever cultural norms we’ve absorbed form a filter that affects the meaning we assign to people and situations. This leads to assumptions that become dangerous if not challenged. If you hear “Everybody knows” or “We tried that once”—your company is being impacted by assumptions that have worn out their welcome. As any motorcyclist knows, surroundings change constantly. Riders learn to be alert to varying circumstances. For companies to innovate, they need to think more like motorcycle riders. They need to perceive emerging conditions, and imagine what’s coming around the curve.

How can you create the conditions in your company that will lead to breakthroughs instead of incremental improvements? How can you release people from slavery to the status quo, and remove the lenses that blind them to their own stale assumptions? Innovation arises from finding a need and filling it. To develop innovation capacity, leaders need to think and lead differently. I see three ways you can begin to do so, starting now.

  • First, find ways to get out of your own way. If that means spinning off a separate company to handle innovation out of the sight of Legal or Finance, then do it.
  • Second, simplify your market’s needs to a core essence, and come up with a simple solution to match. Simple is beautiful. Intuitive design—like the user interfaces Apple has become famous for—reflects deep understanding of the fundamental needs of a target niche.
  • Finally, when you do find an innovation outside your company, back it! License the solution and bring it into your line-up. There’s nothing stopping any of the big brand motorcycle companies from buying VoloLights and becoming the first player in the motorcycle industry to achieve a needed breakthrough in rider safety.

The three young men behind VoloLights fit our expectations of innovation—that it comes from the cool, the young, the inventor pursuing a passion, who can’t help but tinker to improve what he loves. You can bring those traits back to the company you lead. Just jettison the corporate inertia, reward challengers of the status quo, and remove those lenses of dangerous assumptions.

Nour takeaways:

  1. Look for innovation breakthroughs, not incremental changes, by focusing on the core essence of your market’s needs.
  2. Seriously examine what makes the status quo so static! What in your corporate culture is starving the spark of innovation before it can catch fire?
  3. Be alert to changing conditions, not beholden to dangerous assumptions.
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