For innovation: Uncommon insights come from uncommon places

how to differentiate your businessThis is part one of the series on how to leave small thinking behind. In this first post, I’ll show you a simple technique for coming up with radical ideas. In the second part,  you’ll learn how to evaluate ideas so they don’t fit into “me-too” territory. In part three, I’ll tell you how to determine which ideas might work.

Perception separates the innovator from the imitator. So, a shift in perspective is all that is needed to see opportunities for new offerings. Here is one creative approach to do that…

One of the challenges of coming up with unconventional ideas is the weight of past ideas. Not just the ones you’ve applied, but also the ones you’ve seen, heard, tasted, smelled and felt, all of these are in your memory. You see, what we have stored in our heads is just as much a blocker of uncommon ideas as is your boss not giving you permission to go wild.

This is why the first 15 – 30 you come up with are always going to be very obvious. They are stuff you’ve already seen before. To get to the good stuff you have force your brain to come up with more. But this is quite hard  and takes some time for many to do…

But let’s suppose you don’t have the time to sit down and make a list of 50 – 100 different ideas on how to solve a pressing challenge. What’s a quick way to shake things up?

Exaggerate it.

Take your current strategy and turn it into a more extreme version of itself. The idea is to focus on the things you’re good at and take them to the extreme, then work backwards and integrate certain things that are doable without having to change everything. This is focused creativity that should yield radical, even absurd ideas. They may go to far because they could be illegal, impractical, or unprofitable. 

It could simply be called creative stretching.

An example? Sure!

A few years ago I wrote about how I helped a restaurant “stretch” parts of its strategy and completely enhance their approach to customer experience. A core part of their strategy is “excellence in service”, which manifested itself in the pristine conditions of its staff and everything else that the customer could see.

So, we asked ourselves: how might our attention to detail get us in trouble?

We came up with a list of absurd ideas that were way overboard or not doable at all, but then figured out ways to scale them back so they could be implemented. Of those ideas that were scaled back and implemented was washing only the dirty cars of customers that left their car in the parking lot. You might think this is not a big deal, but it was. At the beginning customers were ecstatic, that in turn made other customers ask about it. Pretty soon the owners decided they would clean every car in the parking lot!

Another idea that was implemented had to do with the menu. The restaurant was already very generous with the serving size of their dishes, so we took it a step further and created a “hybrid” dish with all of the customers favorites. This idea started from a simple question: “what if we created a extremely expensive menu item that no one would buy, but included all the customer’s favorite dishes? How would that look like?”

As you can see, this can get really fun in an instant. But more importantly, is that it’s radical creativity on demand.

If it ain’t broke, break it

Another benefit you get from radicalizing your strategy is that you get the opportunity to discover new insights from “what if” scenarios, because by pushing the boundaries you’ll undoubtedly start exploring other approaches you might have never considered before.

For me, a recent example of how I’ve used this creative technique, is how I did an experiment around digital ethnography at the beginning of the year. I collaborated with Cirklo, an mexican innovation consultancy, to help an NGO figure out ways to raise awareness of the pressing issue that is unclaimed dogs in the streets of Mexico. To figure this out, we went out to the streets to interview people (dog owners, non-dog owners, people who don’t like dogs, veterinarians, volunteers, etc) with a combination of people who were there physically and others who were on via Google Hangouts (me included).

Why was this insightful? Because none of us had ever tried it, much less tried to assimilate answers and turn them into insights on the fly. We learned a lot from this experiment, and have more to come!

Another way to look at this approach to shaking things up is: make the common uncommon. Simply, take something that is common (like the common donut) and make it fun (like VooDoo Donuts).

Bottom line: Most of the businesses that exists in this world live in the mainstream, in the un-differentiated middle. You want to stay away from that boring middle ground. The benefits the customers gets and expects are the same, and the only thing that makes any of the businesses that live in the mainstream different is the name and colors they use for their branding. What it really means to be different, to me, is when you are the only one who can do what you do.

Key Points:

  • To find radical ideas, stretch your core strategy to extremes. To get you thinking in extremes, ask yourself: how might we go bankrupt if we do this? How could we get into trouble?
  • Radical ideas may seem impractical at first, so scale them back a little bit to make them doable
  • Uncommon insights come from uncommon places, and a shift in perspective is all that is needed to see opportunities for new offerings


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