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The Unlikely Source of Your Next Big Breakthrough

The Unlikely Source of Your Next Big Breakthrough

The middleman just might be the vanguard of your next innovation strategy. It’s time to reimagine the role of supply chains in our creative thinking. The truth is that the suppliers we all depend on are greater than the parts they provide. Supply chains are more than places where orders are fulfilled or materials are assembled. They are untapped sources of innovative potential and growth.

The fundamental nature of supply chains has changed dramatically over the past fifteen years. In the early 2000s, optimization was the goal of supply-chain management as we raced to make things better, cheaper, and faster.

Today, supply-chain management is about adaptability, flexibility, and collaboration. That’s because suppliers themselves have become active components of the organizations they provide for. Consider, for example, the making of the iPhone. A complex array of large and small firms, product developers, and service providers come together to build this do-all device.

The people who were once in the supply chain are now actually selling the products themselves. Chinese companies that used to provide parts for large American car companies are now in the business of making their own cars in Asia. Tesla has eliminated car dealerships altogether. The middleman has officially become the front man.

Many of the things that make innovation possible come from supply chains. Think of all the breakthroughs in material science that have revolutionized the core mechanisms and infrastructures of so many industries. The beauty of supply chains is that they see horizontally: they look at all aspects of a business, all regions and all units. Supply chains see things that people in the front office can’t see–they see across boundaries.

So how can you bring the back-office insights of supply chains to the front of your organization? Here are three plans of action that will help you use suppliers for your innovation advantage.

Get to know your own backyard. We all have an extensive network of supply-chain support–from our Internet providers to our credit cards, banks, and other financial-service systems to the couriers who send and deliver our packages. Most of us have only a cursory understanding of what these people can actually do for us. We may know the main benefits of these programs, but we remain in the dark when it comes to knowing how they can enhance our innovations. Build relationships with your support teams. Make calls and sight visits to these places. Educate yourself about the capabilities of your supply chain. What you learn will likely surprise you.

Go to show-and-tell events. There are tons of innovation sources in supply-chain sectors of all kinds, but you won’t know about them if you’re not exposed to them. Attend information fairs and showcases hosted by universities, governmental organizations, and trade associations. Meet new people, ask tons of questions that speak to your particular needs. Talk to the people you travel with and listen to the solutions they’ve conjured up for their situations. You may be able to reapply them to your organization. Remember that these forms of communication are not limited to your competitors or the individuals in your industry but open to people in all areas closely and remotely related to your own.

Be vigilant. Watch out for emerging developments and opportunities by establishing listing posts. These are efforts of any kind to gather information about the trends surrounding your innovation initiative. Connect to specialists outside of your field. Read publications and reports that other people don’t pay attention to. The goal is to pick up on things that are commonly overlooked. For example, when the recent tsunami in Japan wiped out major segments of automobile manufacturing, it took a long time for the supply chain to re-source where these missed parts were coming from. Events like natural disasters and political crises happen all the time but are not regularly accounted for, creating huge vulnerabilities. Set up Internet alerts that will you key you into game-changing incidents ahead of everyone else. This way, you can prepare to take advantage of the opportunities and guard against the obstacles before they arise.

Suppliers are no longer outsider manufacturers who work independently of your business. Make them a part of your strategy–bring them into your decision-making process. Think of them as the executives with all the behind-the-scenes knowledge only an insider can have. The key to your innovation whole is in the people who deliver the parts.

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