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How we innovate: six techniques that lead to breakthrough ideas

Incremental innovation is everywhere, but the real step-change, breakthrough innovations are much harder to come by. There’s no fixed formula for success, but here are six key techniques that we use consistently to generate big ideas.

Mark Wilson

Managing Partner & CEO

I meet people all the time who want, or more often need, their business to take a substantial step forward but are struggling to make it happen. A couple of weeks ago, on a call with a senior exec in a US company, he asked me: “So what’s your formula? How do you guys come up with your ideas? Is there a recipe?”

As part of what became a lengthy conversation on ideas, I told him that we don’t have a formula or a recipe… but in hindsight I’m not sure that’s entirely true. While looking back through our work archive for my previous article about the danger of analysis, I started to keep note of how each project’s big breakthrough had come about.

It turns out that, while there isn’t exactly a formula, there is a pattern: most of the key breakthroughs we’d experienced had come by thinking about current problems or future opportunities in a few different ways.

I’ve distilled out the six that I think are most significant. These were pretty evenly spread across our work, and were, I believe, the things that most often led to the real game-changing ideas.

1. Deconstructing 'truths'

One of the most common methods we use is to identify assumptions or ‘truths’ in the current business or service and unpick them. It sounds simple but it’s often the hardest thing to do. It’s probably one of the most valuable things we bring to a client company in truth, as it’s incredibly hard to identify your own embedded truths.

In dozens of projects, the key breakthrough came when we were able to identify a fundamental truth (or a series of them), remove them as constraints, and free up the thinking process. So often, what are considered foundational components of the current business or service — and often viewed as key strengths — are the very things holding it back. Identify and deconstruct them and everything changes.

Sometimes these are bound up in single words, sometimes in organisation-wide behaviours that, once removed, seem to switch on the innovation gene in teams that are trying to take a big step forward.

We worked with a travel company recently to develop some new travel booking experiences. They operate some enormously successful travel businesses and we initially worked with the company’s time-and-data-proven model for optimal booking rates: basically, put the customer in control, present a wealth of options, allow them to distil with their own criteria, from price to dates, then choose from what’s available, or reset their criteria and go again.

The truth according to several years of operational data was that providing an interface that lets you rapidly boil the ocean down to your own choice is the best method, so it’s applied everywhere.

Our focus was group bookings. We decided that this truth was worth challenging for groups, despite thousands of group bookings being made each week using the existing model.

It turns out that an enormous amount of activity goes on outside of the selection process to help to get to a group decision, so while it looks like the broader model is true, it really isn’t. So, we designed an approach that drives groups towards a choice (with a combination of manual interaction and algorithmic presentation), aggressively limiting the options presented to encourage group decision-making. We quickly found in research that making a great choice quickly is more important than making the perfect choice over ten weeks and thousands of whatsapp messages (plus a few falling-outs) in this scenario.

It’s an approach with a good deal of contrarian thinking in it too (see no 4) but fundamentally we only got there by setting aside that proven ‘truth’ of the current business and working with a new set of assumptions.

2. Building on untapped assets

This is a personal favourite. Companies are frequently sitting on unrecognised assets that have enormous innovation potential. Digital businesses can be built on a wide range of asset bases, and they’re rarely assets in the traditional sense, so many established companies don’t identify them.

Let’s use a simple example. In a current programme, we identified that our 30-year-old client’s greatest asset was not their remarkable team or stellar reputation for service, nor their world-leading products; it was their customer network. What they saw as important to the business, but not really an asset, we saw as pivotal. The question we posed became “what new proposition can leverage that network in a new way?”.

We’d worked on their core strategy components already, so we knew where they had license to explore new services, and once we all focused on this single asset a series of ideas emerged — one of which is in active development and has so much potential that it will likely redefine what type of company they are in the future completely.

Customers as an asset sounds obvious, right? Well, we only pinned it up because of the nature of the trading relationship they have with them. It had never been seen as a key asset before because the leadership team focused on the things they owneddid or made as their key assets. In a different company, an existing customer base may not be an asset worthy of focus, but here it unlocked everything.

Building on hidden assets is one of the most powerful ways to redefine a company’s future — once the right assets have been identified.

3. Applying parallel experiences

This is probably the area where, as external consultants, we bring most obvious value to clients throughout the programmes we conduct with them. So often the answer to a problem, or the approach to an opportunity, has been addressed in some other form elsewhere: it’s simply a case of identifying the parallel and applying it to the current challenge.

For example, in a programme last year, we realised that a monetisation model we had developed for a B2C client some years ago was perfect for a new B2B initiative. Totally different sectors, customers, service proposition, commercial terms… but a common challenge around how to charge and how to surface that in the service elegantly.

Not infrequently, the parallel experience that makes an impact wasn’t even in-market: it may have been part of a workshop discussion or a concept that was ultimately progressed in a different direction. I think this is what is so interesting about applying parallels: we can’t simply look around and say “so, if this worked like Uber, what would it be like?”. So much interesting thinking goes on within innovation or design processes that is not directly visible in the outputs that simply applying visible parallels would only tap into a fraction of the full potential of parallel experiences.

4. Contrarian positions

I’ve long held the view that an over-reliance on logical analysis and data will lead you down rational, obvious paths — paths that it’s just as likely your competitors will walk down. Rory Sutherland tackles this subject so well in his latest book ‘Alchemy’ that I’ll cede all further discussion of why logic doesn’t create magic to him and suggest you read the book.

A key technique we employ, when you boil it down, is simple contrarianism. Our brains are wired to look for opportunities to explore whatever is opposite to the accepted norm, counter-intuitive or contrary to accepted practice.

There are a ton of these examples, but one of my favourites remains from some years ago, when we introduced a £1 trial for (I don’t generally name clients, but this one is hardly a trade secret now). Already a successful magazine subscription business, we helped them more than triple their digital subscriber base and a key part of that, alongside the design of a new digital experience, was to flip their trial subscription from free to £1.

We worked with numerous customers (current, target, drop-outs and lapsed) during an extensive design process and none of them raised anything directly about the free trial (which was already in operation). But still, a ton of people dropped out of the free trial process when you had to enter credit card details to begin paying after 30 days. So we said “let’s work on a new assumption: that free is not the most attractive trial option.” And so it proved: as soon as the £1 trial was introduced, trial subscriptions surged, and so did the number of people remaining as subscribers at the end.

No-one else in the market did it. It shouldn’t have worked according to all the widely accepted practices, but it did. We believe that it made the service feel more valuable and somehow reassured people that they weren’t being tricked when they supplied their credit card details. We will probably never know.

The key to contrarianism is to learn how to de-program your brain from running on rails and allow what is not logical to come to the fore.

5. Sparks of insight

Sparks of insight are the gold nuggets that emerge from working with customers. It’s not the general trends or patterns, it’s the outliers; the single, aberrant points that fall way outside the line that is intended to show, by volume, where the most important data lies.

Over the course of thousands of sessions with customers from all walks of life, the thing that strikes me is how often the breakthrough idea had its origins in one single comment that one single person said.

Sometimes this is someone thinking in an unconstrained way, ignorant of the ‘rules’ of the subject. Sometimes they just have a great idea, and sometimes they just say it as it is.

A customary example. In a programme for a large business information company, we spoke to customers around the world about their work and how they saw their industries changing in the years to come. We were keen to know about major challenges ahead, what they really valued, what would make a meaningful difference to their ability to do their job, and so on.

We got many of the same, useful, constructive answers and built a great understanding of what day to day life was like in the roles we were talking to people within. Then one guy, probably the most apparently disinterested (he’d had a bad day) came out with a few sentences that changed the direction of the whole programme. He said one word, which fast became the core focus of the whole service, and will be in its name. When we had the playback from the call, and those sentences had been captured word-for-word, we all looked at each other and said a series of overlapping “that’s it” and “boom”.

Sometimes, it really is that easy: you just need to be prepared to engage people in the right conversation, then listen to what they say with an opportunist’s ear, not a statisticians’ mindset. You have to remember that breakthrough innovations are built on breakthrough ideas, and if the breakthroughs were found in the averages and median distributions, everyone would be having them.

6. Loud & lively

This final one is less a technique in its own right than a way to help the others along. Get stuff up on the wall and discuss it out loud, as a group. Some of the best ideas emerge either during a ‘hearty’ debate or soon afterwards.

I think it’s down to switching on the brain to the right type of thinking. Some people love to think in-the-moment and others like to take time to quietly process things and generate their own thoughts. I firmly believe that we’re all both of those things, whether we know it or not… but the bit that most often gets missed is the real ding-dong discussion that gets the brain fired up and some of the right chemicals flowing.

These sorts of sessions are not run, they flow. They rarely end with an answer, although they do sometimes end with a hundred interesting questions. They’re more pub discussion than structured workshop and they can bring out passionately-held views. They can be frustrating because the answer won’t come. They can also be bloody exciting when it does.

Some people hate them, but I believe they are instrumental in breakthrough thinking — partly because they’re the perfect feeding ground for the earlier techniques, and partly because they seem to leave the same processes active in the brain long afterwards.

So often ‘the idea’ emerges overnight, in the shower, in the bar later, while driving, or in many other scenarios where the brain has switched down a gear again. Those little processes are still ticking away, popping to the forefront when they get somewhere. I’m sure a psychologist could tell me why this happens, but I know that it’s an incredibly powerful platform for some of the biggest breakthroughs we make.

A recipe? A formula?

This is far from a comprehensive list and I’m sure others have different techniques that work for them. These have all been a part of more projects than I dare to count and they’ve proven their value time and time again.

So, to answer the original question I was posed; no, I don’t think we have a formula. We do seem to use a similar set of mixing methods pretty frequently, but different combinations seem to work each time. It’s a good job we don’t run a restaurant.

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