Big ideas – where do they come from?
How can we generate them?
How can develop impactful ideas – the ones that translate in winning products and services?
How can we do that persistently, repeatedly…even predictably…
In our view, historically looking at dozens, even hundreds of cases, one thing dominates – context. We’ve written on it before but not the nitty gritty, the how. If you’re always in the pursuit of context, you’ll almost certainly persistently develop great ideas that translate into winning products and services.
Here’s the brief foundation for how we approach finding high impact ideas…
As we said the last time…
“Context. The big picture. For most product developers, designers, and innovators in general the context concept seems often lost. (Instead) people want to believe. They want the idea to do well. Problem is, companies are not in the business of ideas. They are in the business of making money by delivering a product or service that adds value under some particular, hopefully unique, competitive advantage. Ideas are none of those things, especially without context. Context allows you to position the idea, value the idea and truly understand if the idea has merit. Leave out honest, big context and you will fail and rather persistently at that.”
Principles – The Bedrock
Generating impactful, actionable big ideas stands upon some bedrock principles. The best and first principle is having an open, aggressively innovative culture. If you don’t start there, we’ll, it’s not likely you’ll do well with big ideas. Why? Because it’s an entire organization that properly incented that can gain those insights from data and noted trends from a myriad of areas, places, groups and actions. Far too many make these C-level activities, leadership limited. The result? Huge missed opportunities for contexted insight replaced with all too often far too focused rose colored glasses seeing a world often already extinct to competitors but not to your leadership.
Our key principles to avoid this are built upon the core concepts of time and freely flowing information supported by:
- Aggressive rewards and compensation
- Open, transparent communication
- Open data access
- Floor to board authority and budgets
- Persistent, intimate customer relationships
- Persistent, intimate supplier relationships
Time? This is at the core of all business and I’d argue life. You can either try to get more of it and get better quality time. There is nothing else. That’s’ not just consumers – it’s industrial too.
P&G tells us to enjoy the go. There’s our point right there. What place to eat? To stay? To go on vacation? What TV? What car? Who to date, who to marry. Self driving cars. It’s about the quality of the time. Industrial? The machines don’t break down. Easy to use and fix. A great work space. A great leader. Great benefits. You get it.
Then there’s more time. A doctor can save your life. We can get those clothes washed in half the time. The new planes go twice as fast. That pizza oven can make a pizza in 60 seconds. Industrial? Paint the car in minutes standing still, not 20 minutes or more per coat. 3D prototyping. Pre-set building panels allow house builds in weeks or even days, not months.
Freely Flowing Information
Hiding and controlling information – not generally good. Period.
Many think it helps control the ship but the resulting gossip, politics, poor decisions and analysis and then poor morale take their tolls not just upon an organization but all involved from the customer to the supplier and even their suppliers. Yes, certain information has to be controlled but not it’s essence.
In fact, it’s when we all have the maximum information possible from all sources possible that we maximize the likelihood of a trend being noticed, a need being understood more clearly and most important of noting big opportunities that can be analyzed, assessed and then the best seized upon.
Today’s digital technology has taken this all to a level I never could have imagined and that needs to be exploited to it maximum extent to freely share information and to facilitate collaboration at speed with impact. The result – high impact ideas can come from anywhere.
Aggressive rewards and compensation
If the staff can’t benefit in whatever compensation that they crave, that they need, they simply will never reach peak performance or even try. It’s not always cash but could be more vacation, more to retirement, education coverage, a charity donation. The point is compensation needs to be aggressive on the upside, no limits. If the firm explodes with growth, the staff’s rewards should as well.
Open, transparent communication
The absolute key is absolute clarity, simplicity and honesty. Yes, there are times when we all need to hold back, but not the way it’s still often done in an extreme – as if employees, even owners, should not be trusted. What’s happening, what do we all think, the why, the when, the where, the how. It goes further – what do our customers really think, our suppliers, our partners – what are their concerns, what do they like, wish was different, what’s a hardship, what’s great.
An example? Strategy communication. If leadership does not convey this simply versus not 50-word mission statements and dozens of slides, they will fail more often than not. Instead strategy should be communicated at it’s best as simplistic billboard positions on why our customers should care and what role we can play in their success. It’s here that all in the organization should understand and be able to challenge how they can individually and as groups contribute to that strategy every day, every minute. This is not complicated. In fact, it just takes commitment.
Open data access
To the the latter means doing this. All data accessible as best as one can to everyone. You don’t know what you don’t know so expecting research to develop products for needs never or poorly communicated. On the flip side, long research dossiers not put in laymen’s terms are useless at their core to marketing, sales and market research. Today’s’ digital systems allow for vast “Big Data” accumulation and analysis but none of that matters if everyone cannot get collaborative access. Give everyone you can access and now you’ve started the process of maximizing your organization’s effectiveness.
Floor to board authority and budgets
Everyone should have some kind of budget and resource authority – something that allows for them to make decisions, to learn about making them and to have some leeway and freedom in pursuing an idea. This does not mean ultimate managerial control is not there – it’s the opposite – it’s about the ultimate control in figuring out who can handle the concept while maximizing again organizational effectiveness.
Persistent, intimate customer relationships
This is not about focus groups. This goes far beyond that, both for the consumer and industrial markets. Focus groups and the like are all too often periodic, snapshot moments looked at through an overly specific, often unintended lens. Instead this about real, persistent relationships at multiple levels of both organizations or groups that allow for that free flow of information. Setting up major customer relationships, meeting as needed but consistently and often and sharing with them, confidentially of course as needed, where you and they think things may be going and what capabilities are needed and are developing, what big trends may be emerging. It’s about creating roundtables, collaborative research seminars, cross developing consumer data and even a customer only conference and on and on. It’s these debates that often are the most powerful because they are inviting outside thoughts not impeded by your own organization’s paradigms. It’s about building trust and the great relationships that should result more often than not.
Persistent, intimate supplier relationships
Ditto the above, but now we are talking everyone and everybody who supplies us – from internal support like HR and manufacturing or vice versa to our marketing and branding firms to our product materials, equipment and utility suppliers. Everyone plays a role and determining which can be trusted and worked with intimately to support the path forward and in noticing trends and opportunities makes solid business sense. Again, it’s all about over time building these relationships and the trust that goes with them.
We already defined context and its purpose. We talked about the principles. That’s the foundation for the basic activities that lead to idea generation and beyond.
The Basic Activities
At the heart of it all there are several persistent activities that one can engage in to work towards persistent, repeatable and even predictable high impact idea and product creation, key persistent activities we use in our own Adaptive Innovation program:
- Macro Trends Analysis
- Macro Needs Analysis
- Insight Development
Macro Trends Analysis
One begins with not simply understanding one’ industry and all the myriad aspects of its products and supply chain. Rather, one must take a few steps back. For us it goes farther than Maslow’s need hierarchy. It goes to the nature of time. Assuming Maslow as truth, look around us today. Almost everything goes into one of two or both boxes – either one wants more time or better quality time. The key in Trends Analysis is seeking out how rising or declining trends and their acceleration in everything from technology, our environment, socio-demographics, sociopolitical and other changes will effect how they affect the the two key needs – more time and or it’s quality.
Portable, miniature, highly efficient computing power has enabled incredible sensing and analysis at herculean speeds. These trends should have revealed to many that autonomy could grow by leaps and bounds. The resulting trends from those trends? How will the rise of self driving cars impact how we move things around – people, goods and the like. Most talk about the potential to reduce accidents and traffic, but if true, what does that even mean to you, your own firm? Will trucking simply become automated looking through the conventional lenses? Or will drones and mini vehicles instead begin moving goods around? Why have a truck? Why not make deliveries to restaurants and small establishments with miniaturized vehicles that a third party controls, like Lyft or Uber, that a restaurant owner when placing an order, the new vehicle system automatically handles the supply chain. Sounds like an Amazon opportunity. Why not the same for plastics parts deliveries? At the heart of this trends analysis are the understandings of these trends affects upon time. The more autonomous and non-occupant defining vehicles and machines become, the more their formats and even how roads are built may change in ways most cannot see. What trends could emerge or are possible that you could exploit? Enable?
Done right, solid trends analysis may facilitate you and your firm’s path to great context and thus better, even revolutionary ideas that transform the world and your firm.
Macro Needs Analysis
Needs – now looked at again through the context of those bigger trends you’re now persistently observing, analyzing and understanding. What could your firm do to better serve customers era with that new understanding about trends and your or others perceived instigation of even more trends? That’s what needs analysis is all about. Getting into not just your firm’s view and lens but rather those of the wider world’s trends and how they are changing and the basic impact on serving the most basic needs.
It’s here that abstraction is important as well as playing around iteratively with business models versus overly specific ideas. It’s about, regardless of technical status, imaging the world as it may evolve five and ten and then twenty years out. That’s where figuring out trajectory possibilities helps understand potential timing for various scenarios and the “what must be trues” required for a business model to emerge from how the requisite trends varied scenarios play out. The shakeout from this harder work will reveal which scenarios for the varied perceived needs are most likely and the “what must be trues” to get their and how your firm can play off of that for not only its own benefit but maybe its survival. Who can say Blockbuster? Taxis? Hotels? Music? Retail? You get the picture.
The ones winning are the ones taking multiple trends together, analyzing their combined impact iteratively and persistently, seeing what abstracted concepts could emerge and how they could play a profitable, impactful role let alone see where the competition may be coming from over time.
This is where the greatest ideas really derive from. Insights almost by definition are ideas, but often they are best when abstracted.
Facilitating great ideas does not start with an idea guy but rather with all employees led by strategic individuals, topped by the CEO creating the context that facilitates better, more effective ideas. The strategic individuals with the most insight are the customers and their influencers coupled with a deep understanding as we’ve said of global trends on a macro level. Understand this and communicate effectively how you fit in and then who you want to be and suddenly context changes everything about generating great, impactful ideas and who those folks can be generating them. They certain not do not need to be at the C-level but do need to be managed there for the big strategy and business case shifts.
Insights are about uncovering, recognizing, analyzing and understanding how all these ever changing, intersecting trends create new ways under various models and scenarios to meet customer needs. At this point, ideas begin to emerge but its best to keep them at a distance, as abstract ideas where the what must be trues – be the economic, technological, socio demographic, political and the like – indicate the contexted idea. These abstract specifications are indeed the beginning of idea generation but in this space we are simply interested in asking questions that lead to insights:
“If these two trends continue, it means X, Y and Z are possible and G, H and J are going to go away meaning a new opportunity to produce or provide or deliver could look like F or R but only if these other things are true”
It’s these insights that are almost but not quite ideas but indeed provide the real and true context for developing the abstracted and finally specific ideas. Story conception from the consumer level to the macro scale keys developing great insights. In fact, great, collaborative story telling uncover more consistently the key what must be trues and their likely ranking. Either alone, in groups, openly told, narrated and acted out or even developed as a group live are great, specific activities to use here. The result? Terrifically contexted and vetted insights into the future and the now.
Carefully, openly worded and abstracted insights facilitate much more efficient, higher impact idea generation and ultimately more consistent, persistent and even predictable product and service wins. The basis as noted – persistent macro trends and needs analysis in an open, free flowing culture of collaboration and data access where all can win. These insights and emerging ideas now likely have business models and specifications that guide the what must be trues and thus more specified ideas that are far more easily vetted and developed. It’s at this point that we are ready for true innovation – the efficient generation of high impact, contexted ideas.
In our experience companies that succeed with big ideas simply create powerful, easily communicated context and when they do they communicate it well everywhere. In fact, open, honest and free communication pervades the entire organizational infrastructure inside and outside. When these firms have success, they share it aggressively. They freely share information and allow free access to it. Customers, partners and suppliers are persistently, continuously engaged to maximize insight and idea development. All of this together maximizes the likelihood of trends being noticed, complex trends interactions being gauged for opportunities and the context then provided for generating the best and most actionable insights and ideas.
More simply – Develop context first, strategic direction and business cases second followed by the ideas. All of this must be persistent – there are no defined times to do this…indeed it’s a never ending effort periodically delivering powerful, positive, profit generating impact.
Our next article in this new series? The actual process of innovation – developing great, abstracted ideas – and the what must be trues that are required for success.