Let's face it - slow and steady only won the race because the guy in the lead was such a dips#&t that he got caught snoozing. Innovation doesn't happen at a tortoise's pace; it happens because someone, somewhere takes an operatic leap of faith. Someone, somewhere finds a new application for an old tool or solves a problem we didn't even think needed solving.
Apple pulled this trick off with the iPhone. They pulled it off not because they looked at a phone and tried to make it better. That would have yielded too modest a result. They pulled it off because they decided to find a way for people to take functionality with them in their pocket. The fact that you can make a phone call (most of the time) with the device is really just icing on the cake. Apple already had the infrastructure to distribute "functionality" in the form of music with its iTunes/iPod architecture. It was a quantum leap to distributing applications on the same platform. Once hardware was designed that could interact with the surrounding environment (camera, GPS, compass, accelerometer, etc.), it was just a matter of opening that platform to 3rd-party developers to pile value on top.
Last week, it was reported that Google's self-driving cars were spotted in the wild. Not only is this cool because cars that drive themselves are really freakin' cool, but because this is a perfect example of finding a new application for tools already in hand.
Google has amassed an exhaustive database of map information in order to bolster its search product. Not only do they have the standard geocoding data, but they tirelessly crawl the planet with a fleet of vehicles to make that data richer. As a result, you can type an address into Google's search engine and see it located on a map. You can see what that location looks like from street level if Google's vehicles have been there. You can also type a second address in and Google can provide you with directions from Point A to Point B. It can even alter the route based on traffic data, number of points-of-interest along the way, or whether you are walking or taking public transit.
So, Google looked at it's map data and said, "If we can tell a person how to get from Point A to Point B, why can't we tell a car how to do the same?" New nail, meet old hammer - and, so, innovation is occurring. It's still a way off before commercially-available cars are chauffeuring folks to where they're going, but the seeds have been planted. I don't really see anyone catching up, because Google owns the most comprehensive data.
It was also announced today that Google would be a primary investor in an effort to pipe energy from offshore wind farms into the power grid. No doubt, Google's motivation is (in part) a result of their own exorbitant power consumption needs, but it also addresses a much larger requirement of our society needing to generate more power while utilizing less land and creating less toxic byproducts.
So if you want to bring innovation to your organization or customers, look for the big problems that need to be solved. Is there a capability your resources or customers don't even realize they need? Address it. Next, look at the tools you have already developed. Can you bring those tools to bear on an existing need? What platforms do you already have in place to solve a problem that you can use to solve another problem with some minor adjustments? If you can resolve issues your constituents don't even realize they have, you can create your own demand. That's almost like being handed a blank check - for both of you.