CIO Symmetry

Mar 30 2012   2:02PM GMT

What CIOs can learn from the Swiffer innovation inspiration

Wendy Schuchart Wendy Schuchart Profile: Wendy Schuchart

The funny thing about innovation inspiration is that it sometimes needs to be teased out by your team. Take the Swiffer, for instance. At one time, Swiffer’s parent company, Proctor & Gamble, employed the most PhD holders in the country. As a company, it lives on innovating consumer packaged goods. It invents things we had no idea that we couldn’t live without.

Over a decade ago, the company was looking at improving upon a common household chore: mopping. It studied how people mopped their floors by going into homes and watching them mop. Of course — just as I clean before our cleaning people arrive — their studied homeowners were pre-cleaning their floors before the P&G folks ever got there. Makes it kind of tough to study dirt when you’re cleaning a clean floor, right? The researchers had to get sneakier. They started arriving with dirty shoes and surreptitiously spilling dust as they showed up. At one home, a practical grandmother walked over to her roll of paper towels, wetted it under the tap and then spot-cleaned the dust off the floor. And in that moment, the Swiffer was born.

When the Swiffer came out in 1999, I was working at a big data company, helping Wall Street analysts understand the impact of the new products on stock share. We watched as the P&G shares hiked 130% in Swiffer’s first year. By 2008, P&G stock was trading at 37 times what it was before Swiffer’s debut.

When I heard the story of Swiffer’s innovation inspiration — the wet paper towel — the first thing I thought was, “My grandmother did that all the time.” It’s true: throughout the 70’s and 80’s, whenever we tracked in mud or dirt, she’d chase after us with a wet towel, erasing our footprints as we walked. Incidentally, my grandfather had worked in the P&G paper mills for his whole life, making that very same paper towel.

Just think: that innovation inspiration was right there at P&G’s fingertips back in the early 70’s. If only they had engaged a dialogue with their own employees about how they were using the products in real life. Think of the impact on their fiscal health if those gains had been realized 20 years sooner.

Chances are that your next great IT innovation has already been discovered by the people you see every morning when you get your coffee in the cafeteria. Your employees are already doing things, right now, that might change the face of your business tomorrow. It’s up to the CIO to tease that innovation inspiration out and into something that can benefit your bottom line.

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