Are Resource Constraints an Advantage for Innovation?

Lessons From The Service Council Symposium

This past week, my colleague Deirdre and I attended the 6th annual Service Council Symposium in downtown Chicago. During this 3-day service industry event, service leaders gathered to share ideas and learn new skills.

One of the standout presentations was from David Schonthal, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University. His keynote was all about the hunt for new ideas, specifically, how companies can reframe challenges to look for new ways to solve the same old problems.

His speech poised a thought-provoking question – are resource constraints actually an advantage for innovation in the service industry?

Big Money Can Come at a Cost

During his presentation, Schonthal talked about how some of the most innovative ideas are formed out of being forced to find an alternative solution due to resource constraints.

This is because when a business has ample access to money, staffing, equipment, consultants, etc., they often become too rational and end up over-analyzing concepts that might just have a simple answer. Additionally, there is no sense of urgency, resulting in companies taking much longer to come up with solutions.

Resource Constraints are Common in the Service Industry

Many of the attendees I met agreed they lacked resources, yet were trying to improve and advance their businesses. More often than not, they were asked to do as much as possible with very little. Sometimes it comes down to lack of trained employees, as the industry is seeing more and more field service technicians age out.

Others cited a lack of updated technology for their field teams coupled with customers demanding faster and cheaper services. On the flip side, some of the larger corporations we spoke with have ample technology resources but don’t know how to leverage them in order to improve the areas where they have constraints.

Reconnecting with Your Customers

David Schonthal reiterated what we at Zinc see all the time — you can’t depend on spreadsheets, time cards, and reports to fully understand what is going on in the field. You have to be fully immersed in what’s going on and know what your employees are experiencing day to day.  All too often, corporate teams over-rely on data to better understand customer behavior, rather than more closely examining what’s happening with the field teams delivering services to those customers. 

David challenged these companies to think like a small, agile company with constraints. In doing so, service managers can look to the field and experience the day to day experiences of the techs. It sounds a lot like an episode of “Undercover Boss,” but that show was created for a reason: sometimes stepping away from the C-suite is what’s needed to bring out the creativity and open your eyes to the problems that are truly hindering the company.

Bringing These Lessons Home

As a member of the product team at Zinc, my job is to step into the customer’s shoes and figure out how to best explain what we do, improve on it, and build what customers are looking for. And I will admit, there have been times where I’ve gotten sucked into doing things the same old way. Repeating what worked in the past is not always the way to solve problems for the future.

At Zinc, we avoid this by using the product ourselves and building relationships with our customers to understand how their businesses work, and how Zinc can help them. By living and breathing our product, we uncover new ways to innovate and catch on to what customers love and what could be improved. With these insights, we hit the drawing board, always keeping our customers at the forefront of everything we do.

As Schonthal says, “Understanding the “why” needs to be the first step in creating a better “what”.