The Best Way to Look for the Next Big Thing

04/06/2015 01:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

getty_149277194_9706459704500141_52957The opportunity to innovate may be right in front of your eyes, but turn around or blink and you'll miss it. Seizing on a moment of potential growth or creativity is about having the right field of vision. Think of watching a spectacular sunrise. People often miss out on sunrises because they're not looking in the right place. They can't see the horizon. They can only see the light of the sun when it's high in the sky, and by then it's too late--the sun has already risen.

The same thing is true of entrepreneurs, who often look in the wrong places at the wrong time. Many seek out the so-called next big thing when they want to innovate, searching for medical breakthroughs or new technologies. But in reality, anticipation of these major developments and discoveries requires a very high level of expertise and access to research databases and universities. These are things that entrepreneurs simply don't have at their disposal.

That's why it's better to think smaller and look at what's already out there. An innovation doesn't have to be radical in order to be meaningful or worthwhile. Instead of trying to find something no one has seen before, create extensions of current solutions. Take something that already exists and make it a little different or better. Apply more effective uses of low-cost, low-level systems and technologies to transform an old service into a more efficient one. The key idea is not newer but better, cheaper, faster. Here are three places to look for a better line of sight:

Find unmet needs and fill them. Examine key interactions between clients and consumers and see where there are critical desires unfulfilled. Consider, for example, the ways insurance companies have improved their old services by going directly to customers and determining what wasn't getting done. When they discovered that homeowners' insurance in California didn't include earthquakes or that small business' insurance plans in the early 2000s didn't include data breaches, they came up with new services accordingly. The key insight was to uncover a shortcoming or void and fill it

Find inefficiencies and fix them. Observing when and where services are untimely is a great way to locate high-potential innovation initiatives. The relevant example is the recent series of simple but game-changing improvements made to travel. Not too long ago, travel delays caused by mechanical failures in airplanes or weather emergencies were a nightmare. Now, there are tons of low-cost apps that track your flights and gates and allow you to reschedule on other airlines and manage those travel crises. At a more local level, apps for immediate car and parking services and hotel and restaurant reservations have shortened--in some cases, even totally wiped out--wait times for services we use on a daily basis. These innovations didn't require a massive amount of capital--they were just opportunities to apply low-level technologies to an existing inefficiency.

Find complexity and eliminate it. Identify systems that are unnecessarily complicated or that rely too heavily on bureaucratic procedures and make them simpler. Getting rid of needless complexity is exactly the motivation behind innovations in college admissions and registration. A decade ago, getting into college was a deeply convoluted, ambiguous, and stressful process. Now, there are things like college selection wizards, where you can put in your SAT scores, high school grades, and desired size, location, and program, and receive back a list of the institutions that best match your profile. Thanks to the common application service, you can submit one application for many schools. What is significant about these seemingly minor developments is their power to make a once-tortuous procedure turnkey.

Pay attention. Look up, look down, look all around yourself. Look for the things that other people don't see. Chances are if you see an obvious occasion to innovate, other people see it, too. So look for subtle patterns, small holes, tiny inconsistencies, minor inefficiencies. The opportunity to innovate may be inside something you see every day, but you'll never see it if you don't look close enough.