During these awful times, I’ve heard the word “innovation” used a lot. Our Covid-19 task force leader and others have been using it during their frequent briefings. Most recently, I heard an example of the word being used when the Inventor and CEO of MyPillow® announced that he was using his bed sheet manufacturing line to develop cloth based surgical masks.

I’ve been in the innovation business for most of my career. I’ve been in R&D starting from basic research, to exploratory research group, to developing new products and ended up as Vice President of Innovation and Business Process Improvement before jumping ranks and becoming a consultant.

MyPillow® got me thinking again about the question “What is Innovation?” Certainly, not everything has to be innovative to be useful. It isn’t a criterion for importance.  However, innovation is linked to success and organizations keep score. Innovation is important for people, companies and countries. It’s worth thinking and talking about in these times. We want to be innovative.

When I work with my clients, I share the following 3 key elements of innovation. It has to be a unique idea that is useful and can be effectively implemented. If any of these three aspects are missing, then it really isn’t Innovation.


Key feature number one is that it has to be a unique idea. This is the toughest aspect of innovation. What do we mean by unique and what’s an idea? Ideas are the easy part.  We all have ideas every day.  I have an idea…let’s mow the lawn. What’s unique about mowing the lawn? Nothing really.  What if it’s coming up with a lawn mower that’s battery powered and has power enough to cut through heavy grass and last for over an hour? I’d classify that as a unique idea. So, in many cases it’s perspective that defines uniqueness. Eric von Hipple in his book “The Sources of Innovation” termed “Lead User” as someone who is using a product or service to solve needs not yet experienced by the general public or specific industry. My favorite example is the development of the mountain bikes allowing enthusiasts to fly down mountain trails. Early innovators started modifying bikes until a company called Specialized® started to manufacture specific bikes meeting the consumer needs.  Is the ability to manufacture bed sheets and adapting the capability to make surgical masks a unique idea? Maybe not specifically, but to quickly develop the changes to the manufacturing process and tooling to make them efficiently, at a reasonable cost, and with high quality certainly could be. I have seen lots of very unique ideas in my work with continuous improvement.


It may be a really unique idea, but is it useful? Can it solve a problem that exists or make life easier or more ordered? What are the specific advantages it brings to the market or to an individual company or organization? Is it different from what is currently being used?  These questions help answer the question of usefulness.  Is using bed sheet stock to make surgical masks a unique idea? Absolutely. There is a critical shortage of masks. Making more and making them available may save lives.   Pretty clear here, I vote yes for useful.


Lastly, can it be implemented? In business that’s translated into “Will someone buy it, and can we make it at a reasonable cost?”  In other sectors does the product or service work and does it meet all the specifications. I mentioned that the actual changes to make a product or service at a reasonable cost, on time with the right quality could be unique.  Meeting these critical factors and producing the product or service on a regular basis will meet the implementation criteria. MyPillow® masks are being made available.

Not everyone will agree that making surgical masks out of sheets is innovation. I get it.  It’s not up to the standard of Post-it Notes®, cell phones or anti-lock brakes. Clearly game changing innovations.  Innovations can be new to the world, but they can also be new to an industry or sector or even new to an organization. It’s still innovation. So, is MyPillow® making masks out of sheets innovative? I think so. Thanks for helping us Mike Lindell.

More on innovation to come. What do you need to develop a culture of innovation and what is the actual process?


If you would like to request a listening session for your business, you can contact me, Al Landers, by email at alanders@sbtimail.com.