How to build on a good idea and make it great

Monday November 22 2021

Workers load a shipping container at a FedEx facility at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois, on December 12, 2011, when the firm shipped 17 million packages in one day. PHOTO | AFP


Last week we looked at product innovation, where you create a new product. In this issue, we look at process innovation: No new product is delivered but you innovate around the delivery of an already existing product. Jeff Bezos never wrote a book and neither did he have a publishing company but with Amazon he innovated how the book reached the reader from the publisher.

One of the good case studies of process innovation is Cable News Network (CNN). Television was already in existence and it was big business. What was not in existence was a 24-hour news channel.

Founder Ted turner said of this in his book Call Me Ted, “By 1978 it had been several years since I first considered an all-news channel and still no one had done it, so I considered launching one myself… I was so busy that I rarely watched news on TV. In the late 1970s, most newscasts were only at 7pm and 11pm. I usually came home around 8pm and since I got up early in the morning I’d be asleep around 10pm. I wound up getting most of my news from newspapers and weekly magazines and I figured that my experience was not unique — there had to be other people whose work hours were not conducive to watching the evening news.”

The bigger, more capable and well established news channels did not see how the all-news channel would make financial sense. They, like most big companies, had been so blinded by the success of the present that they could not see the opportunity of the future. Turner saw opportunity. He was the classic insurgent. His outsider status made him want to work much harder and to succeed much more.

Overrated focus groups

Turner did not conduct studies to prove viability of a 24-hour cable news channel: “I had spent over five years thinking about it and it was time to get going.


Henry Ford didn’t need focus groups to tell him people would prefer inexpensive, dependable cars over horses, and I doubt Alexander Graham Bell stopped to worry about whether people would prefer speaking to each other on the phone. If viewers liked watching news on TV, why not want the option to do it at any hour of the day? And wouldn’t it be great to see breaking news live, instead of having to wait to watch it from tape at 7pm or 11pm?”

Had Turner just focused on what he had built he would still have gone down in history as pioneer of 24-hour news but in characteristic innovator style, he discovered ‘more’ on a visit to Cuba. That Cuban leader, Fidel Castro loved CNN but there was no signal to Cuba. Castro acquired a satellite dish so he could watch CNN. He invited Turner to Cuba and a new idea was born, making CNN the world’s first global TV network.

Redefining delivery

People had been writing letters and sending parcels for centuries and the post office system had been successful. But FedEx did not create something new but rather, helped to make something that existed more efficient.

Fred Smith founded FedEx in 1971 after he received a poor grade on a thesis on his vision for an overnight delivery service. His argued for an overnight delivery service using airports at night when they were not congested. He was failed by his professor. He went on to do it anyway and it became a huge success.

Process innovation is the ability to redefine something that is already in existence, and take it to a new level. While some are looking for the best practice that they can benchmark, others are busy creating the new practice that others will benchmark. You too can create a process making it easier for already existing models to become more efficient.

Wale Akinyemi is convenor of the Street University ( and chief transformation officer of PowerTalks; [email protected]