I mentioned Walter Derzko's master class in idea generation and opportunity spotting in an earlier post. It was well worth the time to attend. I want to share with you a couple of the ideas he covered.
I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about this topic lately, as I'm getting more and more requests to help on challenges involving innovation. [This may be a side-effect of writing a book. No one reads the book, but they think you know something about the topic. This is totally the best job in the world.]
So my office is a sea of books and papers, to the point where I can no longer see my comfy reading chair, and all flat surfaces are long gone. Some of this stuff feels only marginally useful, I am sorry to say. So when you hear something that really rocks, it's like the heavens opened.
I got to try out a really useful technique in Friday's session. Ironically, I had read about it earlier this week when another smart innovation guy, Philip Coppard, sent me an article from HBR on the identical topic. Enough preamble, here it is.
Think of some things you had as a kid. Spend three or four minutes, make a good list.
My list included: book-bags and haversacks, rubber boots, adventure play with my friends, using art supplies, riding my bike, collecting cards.
Now think of an adult version of that activity. Try to come up with one or two ideas for each thing you thought of, by extracting a key element, by taking it to the extreme, or by creating exceptional quality / adult flavors.
I thought of several businesses/products already in existence including the luxury motorcycle market, messenger bags and briefcase backpacks, scrapbooking, high-end rubber boots, and adventure travel.
But I also thought of a few that don't exist yet. When you're a kid, you get to play fireman. But no one is offering this as a fun adult experience.
I hope you can already see the power of this activity, because several existing businesses have come from just this sort of thing. Haagen-Dazs ice-cream, Rollerblade, and fancy Wellington's are a few examples. In the case of the scrapbooking supplies, new life was given to a product that had been killed by desktop publishing -- rub-on text (remember Letraset?).
As a group, we were able to think of several ideas for potential businesses that do not yet exist, that have some initial appeal. This is a fast, easy method to generate a starting point of ideas that can be worked and built upon.
Innovation models and toolboxes
According to Mr. Derzko, the linear and sequential approach to innovation as captured by models such as CPS are useful, but force the brain into a sequence of linearity that is not natural to our thinking. He believes the toolbox approach works better: use the tools that fit the situation, and don't get too fussed about moving back and forth, up and down, on the linear sequence.
I was delighted to hear this, because I've found these linear sequences frustrating at times, even as one of the creatives whose only job is to brainstorm well. [We always value another's viewpoint when it agrees with our own.]
He is also of the view -- as are many others in this field -- that we generally spend too much time on idea generation instead of problem definition.
This certainly fits with my own experience. Quite often, the problem that is presented to a consultant or researcher is not the actual problem at all. Or not foundational enough. By settling on a definition of the problem too early, even world-class idea generation will yield mostly yawners for ideas.
In the research conducted for The Innovative Organization, we learned that successful business innovation is rarely about the big breakthrough from a single creative person. There's a whole chapter about myths that we debunked.
In the workshop, Walter took a strong stand in this direction as well. It's much better to look for templates and methods to find solid new ideas than to stare at a blank page waiting for blinding insight to strike.
Let me give you a concrete example. I have several friends who are artists and designers. They find it amusing that people assume they 'just pick up a paintbrush and the images just flow onto the canvas', as one put it. The real process is much more thought intensive, much more one of using or practicing known approaches and deliberately reaching for a compelling assemblage of existing templates. There is also exploration of things, usually leading to messy or ugly mistakes. Often called 'pushing it over the edge.' If you have ever studied the life work of a great artist, this pattern is very evident. To see an artist do a demonstration, speaking aloud all the while, is to see that same thought process made visible.
Bringing it home
Isn't it encouraging to think that business innovation is a lot like building a deck? You need tools, you need plans, you need to doodle and draw, you need to define your challenge. But we can all build a deck. We can find templates and adapt them to our needs. It is not the purview of only great architects, it is available to anyone who is prepared to make an effort.
Breakthrough Thinking from Inside the Box, by Kevin P.Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford, Renee Dye. Harvard Business Review, December 2007.