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The 3 Biggest Barriers To Innovation, And How To Smash Them

Luke Williams, a fellow at Frog, argues that coming up with breakthrough innovation isn't just a matter of being brilliant. Rather, he lays out a systematic method for overcoming the usual barriers that hem in great ideas.

[This is the third post in a series of excerpts adapted from Luke Williams’s Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business. The first excerpt is here and the second is here.]

How do you transform an opportunity into an idea? Well, the first thing is to get comfortable with the belief that any old ideas won’t do. What we’re interested in are disruptive ideas; that is, ideas with the power for great impact and influence. Ideas that challenge assumed boundaries and inspire a sense of what’s possible. In my experience, however, most ideas never get anywhere near this level. There are three major stumbling blocks:

1: Feeling overwhelmed, directionless, and without focus

In my experience, this is the direct result of relying on traditional brainstorming approaches, which, by the way, have been around since the 1930s, when ad-man Alex Faickney Osborn first popularized them in his book, Applied Imagination. But the problem is that traditional brainstorming has ignored the huge difference between generating lots of ideas and capturing quality ideas. As a result, brainstorming sessions often leave organizations and teams feeling overwhelmed and directionless—a state Beth Comstock at GE insightfully calls, "paralyzed by possibility." Simply put, if your ideas are going to have any disruptive impact, you need to move beyond a shotgun approach to brainstorming and start pursuing creative effort with a laser-sharp focus.

[How are you gonna find the needle in there?! Better to break up the hay stack before you start searching…]

2: Thinking in terms of isolated products, services, and information

It’s getting harder and harder to compete if you don’t view the world in terms of holistic product-service-information hybrids. The real advantage comes when your disruptive idea is blended in such a way that the product, service, and information components can’t be broken apart. To get a better sense of what I’m talking about, consider this quote from Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things: "This Sangiovese may be a ‘classic’ wine from the Mediterranean basin, but this bottle is no longer a classic artifact. It has been gizmo-ized."

Gizmo-ized is another way of saying that even a product as ancient as a bottle of wine no longer stands alone as a static object; it’s dynamic. "It is offering me more functionality than I will ever be able to explore," Sterling writes. "This wine bottle aims to educate me—it is luring me to become more knowledgeable about the people and processes that made the bottle and its contents. It wants to recruit me to become an unpaid promotional agent, a wine critic, an opinion maker—it wants me to throw wine-tasting parties and tell all my friends about my purchase."

In Sterling’s view, there is nothing frivolous or extraneous about this sudden explosion of informational intimacy between himself (with his laptop), and a bottle of wine (with its website). Clearly, we need a new mindset when it comes to generating ideas: The relationship among a product, a service, and the information they provide is more important than the details of any one particular feature alone.

3: Getting stuck at the water-cooler

As a result, they rarely escape people’s heads and instead remain there, unformed. The view from inside the company, however, is different. One of the most common phrases I hear from clients is, "We don’t need any more ideas; we have too many." But when I ask to see the documented ideas they have, they start backpedaling: "Well, we don’t have them written down or anything. But we discuss them a lot."

That’s the problem in a nutshell. You can talk about ideas in general terms, at least for a while. But abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and remember it. So to increase the potential, you have to stop talking about it and explain it in sensory terms. "Sketch it out!" as Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog design, used to say. (He wouldn’t listen to an idea if you hadn’t done so.) Ambiguity disappears when you describe your ideas in visual or written form.

[Nothing buries a good idea faster than idle talk.]

Getting past these three stumbling blocks is a challenge. The chaos of a creative process is overwhelming. It’s easier to think in terms of isolated products, services, and information, rather than blended hybrids.

Breaking Stumbling Block 1: Focusing Your Efforts

So you’ve identified and described an opportunity. Now, it’s time to develop the ideas to support it. You’ll start by breaking down your opportunity into a number of parts and examining each one in a new way. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to all of them. The main point is to focus your creativity.

An opportunity has three distinct parts: There’s an opportunity to provide [who?] with [what advantage?] that [fills what gap?]. In a project for one of the big three automakers, we learned that, in the words of project lead Mike LaVigne, "There’s much more happening than just going for a drive." Mike and his team discovered that a lot of people check email, make phone calls, and use their laptop while they’re in their cars, even though the in-car experience wasn’t designed to support those activities. So in our car example, it might look like this:

"There’s an opportunity to provide drivers [who] with ways of being more productive [advantage] that are safe and optimized for driving [gap]."

Start by focusing on one area of an opportunity statement: the advantage. The advantage, in this case, is "productivity." Then, ask yourself when drivers could make use of their vehicles for productivity. You might come up with something like this:

When running errands
When making phone calls
When dealing with inspiration (taking notes, for example)

After you have the advantage part of the opportunity broken down, you can start asking yourself all sorts of questions about how to deliver on the gap part of the opportunity. So some of the questions might be:

How can we safely optimize the way people make phone calls in their car?
Idea: Integrated hands-free phone calls.
How can we safely optimize the way people take notes in their car?
Idea: Hazard avoidance systems.
How can we safely optimize the way people entertain their kids in their car?
Idea: Integrated DVD players.

After you have the opportunity broken down into questions like these, try to answer them with as many new ideas as you can think of—from the obvious to the ridiculous. And be sure not to reject any ideas too quickly. You’ll have plenty of time to evaluate your ideas later.

Forcing Connections

Inspiration for breakthrough ideas often happens in the periphery, in analogous but not necessarily traditionally competitive categories. As New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman puts it, "The further we push out the boundaries of knowledge and innovation, the more the next great value breakthroughs—that is, the next new hot-selling products and services—will come from putting together disparate things that you would never think of as going together."

Think back to the Nintendo Wii. The inspiration for the motion controller idea didn’t come from looking at what other video consoles were doing; it came from a completely unrelated source: the accelerometer chip that regulates the airbag in your car.

Here’s another example of how bringing two seemingly unrelated thoughts together. One morning, a designer sprang into the frog studio. "I know why everyone says the iPod looks clean!" he exclaimed. Ask anyone what’s so appealing about the design of the iPod, and, almost without exception, they answer, "I like it because it looks clean."

Of course, there are obvious clues, such as the minimalist design, the simple, intuitive interface, and the neutral colors. But these attributes alone don’t fully explain this seemingly universal perception of graceful hygiene. There had to be something deeper. We were all ears.

[An ancient example of a forced connection: The head of an eagle, the wings of a bird, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. And yet it just works!]

"So," the visiting designer said, "as I was sitting on the toilet this morning, I noticed the shiny white porcelain of the bathtub and the reflective chrome of the faucet on the wash basin, and then it hit me! The iPod is ‘clean’ because it references bathroom materials."

There were a few seconds of silence, followed quickly by laughter. We were laughing because we knew that Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod, came to Apple from a London- based design consultancy where he worked on a lot of lavatory basins.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But at the very least, it’s an example of how anything, no matter how unconnected, can spark new perceptions. Often, the more incompatible the connection, the more useful it may be.

Breaking Stumbling Block 2: What Can You Blend Together?

Not all the ideas you’ve generated will be worth pursuing, so pick the three that you think are the most promising. In other words, the three offering the greatest differentiation and the largest number of benefits to either your customers or your company. Why three? Because three gives you a good range to experiment, challenge assumptions, and gather feedback in the next stage. A word of caution: Don’t worry about trying to select the most practical ideas; focus on the most disruptive ones.

Refine Three Ideas

After you select your three ideas, start the process of refining them into a more holistic and powerful form.

The stumbling block here is that many organizations still think of their offerings to customers as isolated products, services, and information. But real value comes when an offering is blended in such a way that the product, service, and information components can’t succeed independently. For example, the iPhone blends product (e.g., iPhone with iPhone OS), service (iTunes+App Store), and information from the network (which includes wireless providers, Google, Yahoo!, iPhone developers, related iPhone social networks and communities, and the manufacturers). Two blending techniques are especially helpful (they’re the two I use when working with clients):

Blend the Bits: Start thinking about the product, service, and information bits simultaneously. So, if one of your ideas is for a new product, what are the services and networked information that would be essential in supporting that product?

Blend the benefits: Always remember that, with few exceptions, whatever you’re offering has to benefit three key customers: partners, buyers, and users. If only one or two of those customer groups actually reaps the benefits, try to even things out. Otherwise, your offer may end up too lopsided to be successful.

Write down every possible benefit you can come up with—not just the obvious ones. And be prepared to make some changes to make those benefits more obvious.

Breaking Stumbling Block 3: What Are Your Disruptive Ideas?

Talking about ideas—as opposed to documenting them—keeps them general and abstract. Showing ideas, on the other hand, makes them specific and concrete, which in turn, makes them easy to share, understand, and remember. So after you refine your three ideas by blending the bits and the benefits, you need to create a one-page or slide overview of each idea, accurately describing it in words and pictures––with a name, description of who it’s for and why they’ll care, key points of difference, and a visual (no matter how crude). If you decide you want to further develop an idea into a solution for the market, having documented your ideas in this way will make it easier to get critical feedback from consumers. [For more detail about this process, buy the book!—Ed.]

One final word of advice: Don’t worry about getting your visualization perfect or let yourself get locked-in to whatever details you’ve included. The details you give when you visualize your ideas aren’t necessarily in their final form. In the next stage of the process, you’ll run your idea through all sorts of refinements and changes. But at this stage, any visualization—no matter how rough or approximate—is better than none.

Click here to purchase Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business.