In the 1960s, Xerox copy machines started appearing in American offices, providing a stunning example of how innovation enabled by technology can create new marketing opportunities.


In the case of copy machines, the breakthrough technology was xerography. The most important innovation that came with it was the ability to quickly and easily make enough high-quality duplications of a document to allow everyone seated around a conference room table to have their very own copy. Here was an outstanding demonstration of how technology can lead to innovation.


In more subtle ways today, electrical construction is constantly being driven forward by innovation that is the result of technology. The nonstop development and improvement of off-the-shelf electrical products is the biggest driver of measurable advancement in our industry.


Simple logic dictates that better products ought to lead to bigger profits, but where should an enterprising EC go to ferret out the best available new product advancements and with the new business applications that come with them?


As service-oriented ECs look ahead to 2014—and what they may do differently to improve their chances of success in the coming business year—we offer six strong suggestions for sources of great ideas that they can put to work in rapid fashion.


1. Join an EC peer group.


Once few and far between, peer groups have sprung up all over the industry. Most trade organizations have them, and you can even find them on the Internet, such as on business-oriented social media site LinkedIn. We don’t know anyone who has complained that belonging to a peer group was a bad idea. Indeed, in addition to fulfilling their stated goal, peer groups provide participants with good take-home advice and worthwhile information, and they also create great contractor relationships that have led to unforeseen opportunities, such as joint ventures between member firms and introductions into new markets.


We have put peer groups at the top of our list for sources of innovative ideas because so many top-flight EC firms consistently praise the benefits of belonging to one.


2. Ask your own electricians.


Your electricians have firsthand knowledge of what’s going on in the marketplace. They interact with customers, who share information with them in an unguarded way that they would never do with managers. Service electricians are on the front lines where they can see or hear what other ECs are doing. Sometimes interpreting the market intelligence that they gather requires some filtering, but the fact remains that they are in the best position of anyone in a contracting organization to see how new products and ideas are introduced and used in the field.


3. Read this fine magazine.


Is making this statement a shameless ploy to please our editor now that our contract renewal time is approaching? Of course it is! But this suggestion is powerful for far greater reasons. By many measures, Electrical Contractor is the industry’s leading publication as can be easily judged from the volume of its advertising pages, but that is exactly the point. It is crammed cover-to-cover with major manufacturers’ product information that with a little reading can yield great ideas.


Product innovation is what drives the electrical contracting industry, more so than any other factor. Keeping up-to-date on product developments is a trait of the country’s most successful ECs.


4. Attend good trade shows.


There is no better way for the owners and managers of EC firms to take the pulse of advancements in products and, better yet, future direction of the industry, than on the floor of a good trade show. An indirect endorsement of that proposition can be found in the fact that high-finance investment firms routinely dispatch individuals to prowl the aisles of trade shows to get a grasp of what is on the horizon in many industries. There is no substitute for a kick-the-tires visit and firsthand look at what the industry’s leading manufacturers and distributors are presenting.


5. Be the second mouse.


Be the mouse who gets the cheese after the first one unfortunately got trapped trying. A competitor might have attempted something that is still a good idea, provided that it is handled differently. These days, we are sensitive to the circumstances that surround espionage of all sorts, but the fact is, the American business history book is full of stories where the next-in-line succeeded after the pioneer failed. Sometimes, a slight adjustment in design or strategy can make all the difference.


6. Listen to your brother-in-law.


When he is explaining the success formula in his business, think about how it might be replicated in yours. Translating a great idea from one application to another is a classic form of creativity. What worked beautifully in another industry can sometimes be profitably put to work in the construction field, but be cautious. It may not always turn out well. And, of course, it does not always have to be your brother-in-law.