Trade shows outside your immediate industry can be an excellent source of ideas. Not only do you find new products but your attitude toward information gathering will be completely different. And that makes you more open to ideas you can adapt to your industry.

I’ve always found trade shows to be a great source of ideas – but especially when they are outside my immediate industry.

A recent example was a Health and Safety show at the National Exhibition Centre in UK. A lot of my work involves chemical safety regulation, so the visit made sense anyway. The bonus was a ticket that covered the security and facilities exhibitions next door.

I spent some time reflecting on why the visit was so productive and decided that it’s not the exhibitions that were different – it was me!

Let me explain: Imagine that you’re a delegate at your industry’s national exhibition and the first priority of your business manager is to get you away from his stand. The hall is full of your competitors and customers. They are taking care of their secrets and you can’t take the risk of asking a foolish question. What are the chances of having a really great idea in that environment?

Now compare that to a visit to an unfamiliar show:

  • You arrive expecting to see something different
  • You take your time passing each stand because the product isn’t obvious
  • You can’t help showing interest and the salesman approaches
  • You have no inhibitions about asking questions

The point is that we now have many of the ingredients for successful innovation:

  • New experiences
  • Problems solved in another technology or industry
  • Communication
  • A willingness to take risks

The products that grabbed my attention on this occasion also had a lot in common:

  • They repackaged well-understood technology
  • They removed the complex parts of a process.
  • Their prices appeared to be good value and didn’t involve long-term contracts

In short, they were classic examples of good innovation – extending known technologies to provide cost-effective solutions to customers in those industries.

As an aside, the benefits of the discussions didn’t only flow one way. Not only did we identify opportunities to refine the products; one supplier learned how an easily-avoided regulation could have completely prevented them from imorting their products into Europe.