Generating insights and ideas

Generating insights and ideas
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What they want, what they need

Ironically, the easiest person to lose sight of during commercial innovation processes is the most important person of all: the customer.

Bill Wilmot of SRI International is emeritus professor at the University of Montana, director of the Collaboration Institute, and author of Innovation—Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want.

“Most people do not do a good job of identifying customer needs,” he says. “They tend to just ask customers what they want, but customers cannot always tell them. They think they do a focus group and that answers the question. You can’t really see what people need unless you shadow them and follow them.”

A lot of great ideas start with a simple insight, and those insights are nearly always first and foremost about people.

Grenville Main is the owner and managing director of research, digital and branding agency DNA . “You have to work out what really matters to people,” he says. “There is nothing new: there is only better, stronger or more vital. If you can improve your importance to a customer, you can sell more. If you can improve the service experience you provide them, you’ll also keep them longer.”

To find out about people’s needs and desires, get up close and personal. Stefan Preston, entrepreneur and advisor to the Better by Design programme at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, knows all about this. He is a former CEO of Bendon lingerie, and you don’t get much more up close and personal than that.

“You can’t learn it intellectually,” he explains. “The way you learn how to ride a bike is to ride a bike.”

You are not selling a product, you are selling an experience. So your ideas have to be all about experiences, not gadgets, features and technical stuff. If you want to improve, say, someone’s experience of arriving at an accident and emergency unit, maybe you need to put a camera on a trolley in the emergency department to get a casualty’s eye view of the experience. If you are looking at kitchen utensils, you could shadow a top chef, or spend a day with someone with arthritis, to really get a handle on what they need.

The problem is the solution

The purpose of gaining insight is to identify a problem, either out in the world or within your own business. And according to Main, things usually really get going when the problem affects both.

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The Blunt Umbrella


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“Ideas that stick are usually driven by need and opportunity,” he says. “A lot of people have discussions around the notion of innovation and where they could benefit from it. But if you’re not in real pain, that can be as far as it goes. Even if you feel you will be in pain soon, the urgency is not quite there for many businesses.”

The pain usually comes in the form of dwindling sales, low morale and/or an inability to hold onto top staff. Once it strikes, there is a temptation to shut it off quickly by rushing to a solution without exploring the territory. This is as risky as charging into battle without sending out scouts beforehand.

Innovation is all about scouting, exploring choices and opportunities. Getting too focused on a specific application early on is a sure-fire way to limit what you come up with. New applications for something are found along the way, or bits of an idea can be used for something other than what was originally intended.

Bad ideas fail to solve a problem, or solve it by means that are too complex, expensive or uncool for anybody to be bothered with. It is vital to understand that it doesn’t matter at all that you have solved a problem if nobody actually wants your solution. There may be easier or cheaper solutions to the problem already around that people are satisfied with, even if they are not necessarily better. Or it may be that people simply don’t care enough about the problem you chose to address.

It seems obvious that if nobody needs or wants your idea, even it’s the most ingenious thing in the world, it won’t sell. But you would be surprised how many businesses are wasting huge amounts of money and time clinging to a clever new piece of technology that nobody wants. Maybe they’ll get lucky and a market will emerge before they submerge, but it’s much more likely that they won’t.

Great ideas—the ones you stake your future on—solve a problem in such a neat way that it changes the whole experience. Or it solves an even bigger problem that may be different to the one you started out with. Preferably it will also solve other problems we never even knew we had.

Sometimes the problem can be the entire sector you are in: what next for the DVD rental business in the era of the download? Or they can change the world: what is the future of the car if oil becomes scarce?

It is no coincidence that some of the biggest companies in the world sell food, fuel and medicine. One way to make big money is to generate ideas for things people really feel they need. Another is to create products or services that people want very badly indeed.

How to get ideas going

Obviously, you are not going to get far if everyone is sitting in silence scratching their chins and going “erm …”

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Changed experience

You walk out of Britomart station toilets, start to wipe your hands on your jeans and realise you don’t need to. Genius.

Idea generation is seldom a completely linear process. You can’t just work through a to-do list and have an innovative idea pop out at the end. Ideas turn, like clay on a potter’s wheel, responding to the controlled pressures placed on them.

There are as many ways to get things turning as there are unread business innovation books in your average corporation, but here are some of the most effective out there. The best approach is to use lots of different approaches to get the best out of your team.

The Watering Hole

This process was developed by Bill Wilmot. The key is to work through the following mnemonic: NABC. This means:
• Need. Identify the marketplace need for your product or service.
• Approach. Define the ‘golden nugget’ or the unique advantage of your approach.
• Benefits. Outline the benefits to the customer, your partners in the market ecosystem.
• Competition. Pinpoint the competition and systematically compare your approach with competitive products or services.

A Watering Hole session runs like this:

1 The person putting forward the idea does a one-minute pitch.

2 They get 20 minutes of feedback from the group during which they are not allowed to speak. Overly negative people are given green hats, and told they can only say something positive; the relentlessly positive get red hats and can only be negative. And some get given big plastic spectacles called the Eyes of the Customer, so they must give nontechnical feedback from a customer point of view.

3 Using the feedback, the idea’s advocate is coached to produce a new, improved, four-minute pitch.

4 Repeat the process until something really good comes out of it, or you put a duff idea out of its misery and save everybody lots of time, money and effort.


This was designed by Nilofer Merchant, author of The New How— Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy, as a way to combat the tendency for brainstorms to create more ideas than any one organisation can pursue.

It essentially works through four stages:

1 Decide what matters. This involves setting out the criteria by which decisions will be evaluated, and what problems or issues you intend to deal with. These criteria are then displayed so that they can be referred to in discussions.

2 Sort. This looks at all the available options and sorts them, based on the ‘Decide what matters’ criteria you have chosen. Ideas that are weak when compared wtih the criteria are dropped. There is also an option to add to the criteria if necessary3 Testing. To what extent are any of the remaining ideas viable for the organisation? Getting the answer may mean looking beyond the participants in the original process.

4 Choose. Ruthlessly and dispassionately decide which ideas warrant further work.


The more complex an idea becomes, the harder it is to tell if it will work, and the greater the chances that it won’t. So there is enormous value in simplifying your thoughts to see if the core is sound.

This can be done in a number of ways:

1 Try to sum up the idea in the fewest words possible. Then see if it is still new and makes sense.

2 Identify the ‘ifs’ in your idea and eliminate as many as possible. The fewer the number of ‘ifs’ in an idea, the greater the market for it is likely to be. For example, ‘If you don’t want skin cancer, and if you don’t want to wear clothes that cover your whole body whenever you are outside, and if you have about $15, you should get sunscreen’ is a fairly strong proposition. It gets at least one ‘if’ weaker if your sunscreen only works for children under eight.

3 Attempt to explain your ideas using concepts a three-year-old would understand. Preferably, actually try to explain it to a three-year- old. You will be amazed at how little bullshit survives this process.

You can’t be mad to work here, because it would screw everything up

As companies get bigger the sheer weight of the bureaucracy needed to keep the behemoth going tends to create rigid structures that squeeze out people’s creativity.

Jonathan Kirkpatrick, CEO of AUT ’s Business Innovation Centre, explains: “By definition you are asking them to behave counter-culturally. As an organisation gets bigger it inevitably creates bureaucracy, systems and processes they put in to track and audit. That, inevitably, works against innovation.”

This means if you are in a big corporate you need to think outside of your cubicle to get the ideas flowing, probably with some kind of spin-off project team or department. Ideally, you want to get this outside the building and away from the normal hierarchy. Creativity often means acting weird and ignoring the rules, so you probably don’t want to do it right under the boss’ nose, unless they are highly creative types too.

This requires a high level of trust on the part of the boss, and a high-quality team to get results. You can’t paper over the cracks with a really tight brief and more milestones than a marathon, as that defeats the very freedom you are looking to engender.

The other option is to get out your chequebook and buy your creativity from outside, which creates opportunities for smaller innovators to get paid. For example, Google may be seen as a powerhouse of innovation, but according to Wikipedia, it has acquired no less than 93 smaller businesses since 2001 and incorporated their innovations into its own service offerings.

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