No blue sky, brainstorms, buy-in

The first thing to get clear in your mind about the innovation and ideation process is that it is a process, and one you should consciously control.

The first thing to get clear in your mind about the innovation and ideation process is that it is a process, and one you should consciously control.

Unromantic as it sounds—and contrary to those fond of blue-sky thinking or grey-sky drinking—it’s extraordinarily rare for viable business ideas to come fully formed out of thin air, or to be discovered at the bottom of a glass. If your business model relies heavily on dreams, drink or divine inspiration you might be better off trying to get rich by opening a pub, starting your own religion or betting at the casino. Newton didn’t get hit by an apple and discover gravity; he had been thinking about gravity for most of his life and was carefully observing the apple as it fell, looking for answers.

Sopheon produces software that helps organisations manage an idea’s life cycle, from generating ideas to selecting the best, analysing them and preparing them for market. “The innovators that have really succeeded are those that have made some really bad mistakes and realised that the science of innovation is worth learning about,” says Sopheon partner Jon Perry.

The real business of innovation is creating ideas that are successful in the marketplace—not just once, but reliably and consistently. This means building an ideas machine: you feed in good raw material and in time good ideas come out.

There are a number of processes to help you do this (and a number of ways in which you can convince yourself you are doing it even when you’re not). You start with your killer insights. In your mind you should have a very rough sketch of a possible product or service that could fill a gap in a market you’re dimly aware of. Nothing more. Now is the time to let the process add the detail.

Don’t bother to brainstorm

“Brainstorms don’t really work”, says Perry, “although they are a lot of fun. It is the plausible and the loud that get their ideas to the top of the list.”

You know the deal. You sit round the table eating too many biscuits. You are not allowed to tell the buffoons they are talking out of their hat. Then, in the words of one of my favourite business cartoons: “Right, now that we all agree, let’s all go back to our desks and discuss why this won’t work.”

Nilofer Merchant, chief executive of Rubicon Consulting, spent nearly 20 years with Apple, Autodesk and Adobe. She described what often results in a Forbes article: “At a three-year product strategy meeting at Apple during the early 1990s, the McKinsey hired guns presented something I now refer to as the ‘99-idea slide’. It was chock-full of information, presented in a visually compelling way. It showed all the viable product strategies we could pursue. With its combined richness and graphical simplicity, the 99-idea slide wowed all of us. It was also useless. These myriad options had opened up a Pandora’s box.”

Evolving ideas: survival of the fittest

Once you have some insights, what you really need is focus. Merchant recommends ‘Murderboarding’. This is essentially brainstorming in reverse, where you all play nasty and try to kill off weak ideas before you are landed with having to implement them. You need a well-disciplined and motivated team, as well as a very competent facilitator.

Done badly, this could be a negative experience for everyone involved, especially those who came up with the ideas. If your people get disheartened at square one because they know anything they come up with will be put through a blender, you could end up trashing your ideas machine.

But you shouldn’t be afraid of giving your ideas a rough ride to the market. You need to train hard to fight easy, so you should roadtest your idea at every opportunity. Any decent idea that has a chance of making it big should be able to withstand scrutiny by accountants, business mentors, banks, investors, your mates at the pub and even your mum. Perry describes this as learning to have healthy arguments. The key with this approach is to get the blood pumping, but not onto the floor.

Another kind of watering hole

Bill Wilmot works for SRI International and the Collaboration Institute and is also co-author of Innovation: The Five Disciplines For Creating What Customers Want. One of his ideation processes is called the watering hole.

Each participant gives an initial one-minute pitch. They then get 20 minutes of feedback during which they are not allowed to speak. Wilmot found that some staff, at the BBC in particular, were so critical he had to give them green hats and tell them they could only say things that were positive, while some Asian teams were so polite he gave them red hats and said they could only make negative points.

He also dishes out giant spectacles, which he calls the Eyes of the Customer. People wearing them have to speak from that point of view, ignoring their own knowledge and asking: “What’s in it for me?”

After the initial watering hole, the participant can then present a more detailed pitch. The trick is to do this multiple times.

In a nutshell

This is another technique that helps to distill your ideas. Essentially you try to sum up your idea in as few words as possible. The fewer the words, the easier it is going to be to explain to every investor, banker and potential customer you have to convince. Here’s an example for a squeezy ketchup bottle: “Bored of waiting for sauces to pour and then spilling them? Squeezy Ketchup Bottle.”

You can also identify and eliminate the ‘if ’s’ in your equation: “If you like sauce, if you don’t want to wait and if you don’t want to spill it, Squeezy Ketchup Bottle is for you.” The fewer ‘ifs’ you have, the larger your potential market.

Another way to play this game is to have someone pretend to be a child who says ‘why?’ to absolutely everything. There is nothing like a child to toddle right through adult over-complications and selfjustifications. Try it: one of you explains the idea, and the other just asks why until you get to the essence. Better still, try actually explaining your idea to a kid.

Creating your innovation culture

All these techniques and others are worth a try. But in the end they are just techniques. These days you can also get some pretty serious technological support. Perry says Sopheon’s software has the ability to collect, store and test ideas from across the whole organisation and is designed to create an innovation culture. “We have to break up the hierarchy. The innovator isn’t necessarily the CEO, it should be about the whole organisation,” he says.

“Some of the best ideas come from the shop floor, or from your customers. You have to learn to listen to them. This collaborative nature also does something about the pride each individual has in the organisation, that feeling of working in a company that has got its shit together.”

The easiest way to get people to believe the dream is to dream together. Remember, at this stage you may not be able to pay top-dollar wages and anyone good enough to hire will be smart enough to know this is a new idea that could potentially see them back on the job market inside six months. So you need to fill that potential motivation gap with some involvement and excitement.

You may also have overlooked some highly talented intrapreneurs: people who can build innovative structures inside your organisation. If you don’t listen to these people, chances are they will go work for someone who does.

Perry also warns us to avoid asking for ‘buy-in’. “It suggests you are just agreeing with the ‘innovator’s’ idea, or that there is no resistance, when in fact you should be innovating together.”

Ultimately, this is because you can’t be your own product tester and gatekeeper. If you have ideas and then ask for buy-in from people you pay to give it, what do you expect will happen? What you are really asking for is a backslap and a reassuring hug. Get that at home instead, and then get back to work.

Hot sectors

Where innovation could hit paydirt in the next few years, according to Shaun Coffey, CEO of Industrial Research Limited:

“The sectors with the most potential marry a market need and funding availability with cutting-edge technology. The global demand for energy is projected to increase dramatically over the next few decades and, coupled with the need to lower carbon emissions, there is significant market-pull for good technology in this space.

“With significant government funding available around the world and soaring energy demands, photovoltaic solar-cell technology is one to watch. Much has been made of nanotechnology over the past few years. Where there is a significant market niche—for example, the work of MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year John Watt’s research into palladium nanocrystals that are a cheaper and more effective way of absorbing toxins in car exhaust— nanotechnology offers huge potential.

“Over the next decade, I expect high-temperature superconductivity technology to have a big impact on the global stage. HTS facilitates the development of machines that are lighter, smaller and more efficient than existing copperwire technology and also promise improvements for the utility and efficacy of electricity networks through increased power stability and reliability.”

Generating insights

One of the most popular and successful sources of ideas is market research. Here are three forms of research that Kiwi firms are successfully employing:

Spending time observing real users in real-life settings reveals the use and misuse of products
Kiwi furniture maker Furnware studied over 20,000 school kids, looking at the way they sat in class. The insights into varying body shapes, sitting patterns and study methods led to a range of school furniture that varies in size and flexes to suit hundreds of body shapes. The multi-award-winning company exports its products worldwide.

Trawl trend data to predict demand
The BNZ’s MarketView service analyses over 10 million Eftpos and credit card transactions every month, generating endless ways to investigate consumer spending. MarketView general manager Stephen Bridle says clients trawl the data to investigate potential changes in price points, store locations, product bundles, seasonality and many more variations before launching into product development. “It takes the guesswork out of it,” he says.

Peripheral vision
Get out more and discover the unexpected— before your competitors do
A favourite tool of designers, this technique involves immersing yourself in the ‘other’, from deliberately choosing alternative food, friends and routes to work, to more formalised outsourced research into ‘what we don’t know’. The idea is to blindside yourself before someone else does. Before bus company Pavlovich began building a new website, it asked, ‘What’s the Internet doing to transport?’ and discovered the alternative booking systems behind the UK’s EasyJet and Megabus. So Pavlovich created Nakedbus, a radical method of managing spare capacity.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).