We need to face the issue of where great ideas come from. Their foundation is deep insights about customers–that part we know. But how do we get from insights to ideas? This is where we step into the process of invention.
As businesspeople, we tend to be well-versed in the identification and analysis of constraints. We have also developed fairly robust tools, such as scenario planning and options theory, for trying to deal with uncertainty writ large. But what about possibilities? If the ability to envision new possibilities lies at the heart of growth, what do we know about state-of-the-art possibility thinking?
Not much, it seems, because we have tended to see business as a largely analytic endeavor, with relatively little attention paid to its more creative aspects.
Research suggests that breakthrough feats tend to emerge from eight different ways of illuminating new possibilities: challenging, connecting, visualizing, collaborating, harmonizing, improvising, reorienting, and playing. Let’s look at how these might be applied to the search for growth.
Challenging assumptions and defying convention are often the first steps. To produce something original, raise questions about the way things are done and entertains doubts about what is assumed to be necessary, natural, or customary. In the realm of business growth, we see much the same process at work when managers challenge mental models and industry assumptions. New possibilities emerge when they refuse to accept existing paradigms and constraints.
Making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas is also often at the heart of creative engineering. Novelty can result from going outside of a single field or discipline and bringing together diverse concepts, tools, capabilities, and ways of thinking. Connecting can be equally powerful in the business environment. The use of analogies that reveal similarities between different fields can provide insight into new possibilities for value creation. While adhering to the mental models of one’s own industry is limiting, trying on the mental models of someone else’s can surface intriguing new opportunities.
For engineers, the first step in making something new is often thinking about how it might look–picturing it in the mind’s eye. Engaging the senses beyond what words describe sometimes opens new paths to creativity. Designers, we are told, “think with their pencils,” allowing the emerging visual images to deepen their understanding of what they are designing as it unfolds.
If managers, on the other hand, think only with their spreadsheets, how much use of imagination can we expect? The act of creating maps and storyboards of customer experiences and interactions often triggers profoundly new insights. Presenting prototypes, no matter how rough, inspires deeper conversation. These are tools well worth adding to the manager’s tool kit.
Many engineering innovations are the product of cooperative effort and could not be developed any other way. A group of people brings together a range of talents and capabilities, applying them to generate results that are more than the sum of the individuals’ skills and creativity.
Collaboration with suppliers and customers represents one way to explore “white space” possibilities. Crossing functional and business unit boundaries can also provide rich sources for enhanced value creation. Here, tools like value chain mapping can identify both vulnerabilities and opportunities in a firm’s value chain footprint.
In every area of human effort, creativity is intimately associated with the quest for beauty. This is most obvious in the fine arts, but it is no less true in the practical arts like architecture and engineering. Here, especially, there is an aesthetic quality that often is about harmony, fitting the products of human ingenuity agreeably into their environment.
The origin of the word “aesthetic” is in the Greek word “aisthetikos,” which means “of sense perception.” Thus, we might conjecture that aesthetically pleasing ideas are those that appeal to the senses, rather than merely to cognition–new possibilities that have an emotional appeal, a “presence” that commands attention and invites engagement.
Circumstances may require solving problems quickly or place overwhelming constraints on what seems possible. To improvise is to create “on the fly,” and the results can be most ingenious.
In the business context, limitations to action are often seen as “stop signs”–as signals to give up the quest for an innovative solution. For designers, the response is the opposite–constraints act as triggers, rather than barriers, to seeing new possibilities. Some of the most successful business strategies were the result not of careful forethought but of improvisation, created out of necessity when familiar options were unavailable.
New possibilities can emerge from new formulations of problems rather than new solutions. We have already addressed one important reframing of the question regarding customers–a move from focusing on “how do we sell the customer more of product X?” to “What need is the customer trying to satisfy?” We can also start with the specifics of the current offering and reframe from that. For example, you can take an offering that is currently commoditized and try to reframe it as a differentiated value proposition to a specific targeted audience.
The idea of play may appear ill-suited to the business environment. After all, business is a serious endeavor. But the single-minded pursuit of efficiency and optimization can leave little room for the emergence of new possibilities–a situation that, in the long run, may cost organizations far more than some “waste” in the name of play.
It is iterative and improvisational, open to surprise and unexpected opportunities. It is also manifestly experiential. To play is to try, to do something instead of just thinking about it. Play does us the great service of calling attention to the value of the experiment, the willingness to forfeit certainty in the name of learning.
Ask yourself some questions that draw on these approaches and warm up the possibility-thinking muscles of our strategic brains:
- Challenging: Take an absolute industry “truth” and turn it on its head. Ask, “What if anything were possible?” and look at the opportunities that appear.
- Connecting: Look outside the boundaries of your usual world. Ask, “What if we were operating in an industry quite different from ours–what would we be doing instead?”
- Visualizing: Put the numbers aside and get some images down on paper. Try using a napkin. What emerges?
- Collaborating: Find a partner and go forth and co-create. Ask, “What can we do together that neither of us can do alone?”
- Harmonizing: Push yourself beyond the “workable.” Try to get to “intriguing.” Ask, “What is really worth doing–what can I get excited about?”
- Improvising: Act as if necessity truly is the mother of invention and make surprises work for you instead of against you. Ask, “How can we turn an unexpected development into an asset?”
- Reframing: Try on a different definition of the problem. Step away from your product and ask, “What is the problem my customers are really eager to solve?”
- Playing: Go out and conduct some low-cost experiments instead of forming a committee. Ask, “What can I do today to move a new possibility forward?”
From The Physics of Business Growth by Edward D. Hess and Jeanne Liedtka, (c) 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University, reprinted by permission of the publisher, www.sup.org. No further reproduction or distribution is allowed without the prior permission of the publisher.
–Edward D. Hess is Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Jeanne M. Liedtka is a faculty member at Darden and former chief learning officer at United Technologies Corporation.
[Image: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]