A sociologist, an engineer and a marketing manager walk into a bar. Then what?
Did you know that you are only a single thought away from an amazing breakthrough? All you need to do is think it. Put like you were a trailing hockey team (only two shots away from the win), it sounds terribly easy. Actually, it can be. Here’s what to do. Collaborate.
In his fabulous book ”How breakthroughs happen. The surprising truth about how companies innovate”, Andrew Hargadon argued for technology brokering. He argues that enlightened trial-and-error of cross-disciplinary teams will triumph over the deliberate planning of the lone genius. Don’t think outside the box. Look inside someone else’s box where they already have been thinking. Use that thinking to match a need in your field and you have an innovation. One very successful example of this is the IDEO DeepDive methodology.
Andrew Hargadon’s book was a real eye-opener for me, inspiring but also frustrating. When the book was published in 2003, technology brokering took very hard work. How do you finmd the people, the ideas and the boxes to connect with? The systematic building of intersections of people was hard to pull off. So I shelved the idea because I couldn’t be bothered to do the work. But it is now December 2011 and times have changed. After the 2003 web 1.0 (I write, you read) web 2.0 (we all both read and write) has established itself in the form of Wikipedia and twitter, just to name two. People are finding each other all over, like the Occupy movement which is reinventing politics, thanks to the use of hashtags like #uws and #occupy on social media. And social networks are developing into social markets, like zilok (rent anything) and taskrabbit (get any chore done).
It is almost too easy to find someone that knows what I need to know. I realize that it it is time for me to blow the dust of the ideas in Andrew Hargadon’s book and look for that unexpected, perfectly matched skill in a different arena. Let me give you a couple of examples, courtesy of Alfons Cornella. First, the Jukari Fit to Fly. Reebok were of the opinion that women are bored in gyms, so in 2009 they teamed up with the Cirque du Soleil to develop something that is a distinctly different type of training. The Jukari has its own youtube channel. Second, Amazon (who is a web 2.0 company in itself) teamed up with the 7-eleven chain to provide pickup lockers for parcels. The one company had the digital infrastructure, the other had the physical network of stores. And don’t get me started on the Renault and L’Oreal Zoe spa car.
Does this seem far-fetched? We cannot all practice business like we are designers (Nike) or technology like we are culturalists (Apple). But this method of using different skills and backgrounds is nothing new to construction. It is the same line of thinking that we use to argue for partnering. There will be one colleague that knows the solution of a problem. We only have to make sure that colleague is given incentive to share the solution, and that this opportunity is given early enough in the process. In order to do that, we have to share what our problems are. We just do it A) between projects, and B) with companies not within our comfort zone. For real.
Our main challenge is that old habits die hard. Our economic system is built on competition. This method of creating innovation and step-change is built on collaboration. This requires trust, and trust is built on generosity. Share like you care. It not only is good business, it is also good fun. But it's hard. You will get frowns from management. At the end of the day though, I think you'll find this new-ish paradigm rewarding.
"The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall." (I never thought I'd quote Che Guevara, but there's a first time for everything)
Right. Let’s say you’re in. I talked you into testing. You’ll likely argue that with hindsight, connecting Coca-cola and Italian coffee maker Illy to create a soft drink-type market for coffee looks easy enough. But actively coming up with the perfect connection is harder. Or is it? Actually, there are a handful of methods we could use. This list is by all means not complete, it is only my first draft of methods I’ve come across. Personally, I think it contains everything one needs to make that breakthrough. It’s just a matter of starting. But remember, you can’t do this alone. Bring in some people that are unlike you and get to it.
1) Map your challenges
Map what your challenges are and identify what sectors likely have that ability. Describe the business idea and try to team up. I gave some examples above. If you want to map in a network, there are organisations like Co-society and Jump Associates that do that sort of thing.You probably have such resources closer to home, you probably just haven't looked.
2) Reengineer your revenue stream (Jump Associates article here)
If a company of consulting engineers were to go from charging by the hour to charging a subscription fee for their engineers or creating franchises, the business of that company would change to its very chore.
3) Challenge-driven innovation
What is your main goal and what is the main challenge you face in reaching it? Define that and then ask what it would take for you to reach the goal and overcome the challenge. You might just find out that articulating that was all you needed to do to identify the change needed.
4) See the need, fill the need
Like Rodney Copperbottom did in the Pixar film Robots, look to your own experience of working with your clients and see where there is a need. Then fill it. Like Rodney, fail fast, fail often, fail inexpensively. Ben Rennie suggested (here) that in the next 30 days, we try creating something, share our ideas liberally and simply view the world from someone else’s viewpoint.
5) Name the product and decode it
A product needs a challenging, inspiring, intuitive name. But a catchy name can unleash a creative urge to decode what that product is. Have a beer or two with some colleagues and come up with a name for a product. Then let that name be the catalyst of development.
6) Mindmapping innovation
This exercise really does create new ideas, and can be done for the fun of it during a coffee break with three to five strangers if you wish. Put five columns on a large piece of paper. Headings are Technology, Target group, Problem, Distribution and Business idea. The first four columns you fill with anything you can think of. Then you have the group close their eyes and point to a word in each column. They then come up with a business case involving those four words. Have them write it in the fifth column.
When we did this (with Kreo as facilitators), our words where Cassette tapes, Pensioners, Unhealthy food habits, and Supermarkets respectively. We came up with a business idea involving Walkmans which guide you through the supermarket, and marked with the dinner you want today. If you want to go on with the exercise, this can be done over and over. The best cases can be posted on another paper and the skills of the group can be mapped on a third paper. In that little exercise there will be a business idea somewhere.
A sociologist, an engineer and a marketing manager walk into a bar. The question is what they came out with.
Images Flickr Creative Commons: Product design innovation workshop led by Larry Shubert of Zip Innovations, by Bytemarks. Collaborating nails, by michaelcardus. MindTouch: Collaboration Revolution, by Roebot
Final image: Mindmap of innovations, by yours truly.
Reasoning and examples in this blog post come in part from Alfons Cornella of Co-society, Barcelona.