Idea-Finding for Innovation

You’re a product manager, a designer, and entrepreneur. Your job is to make something new–innovation–a change that creates new value. So where do you start?

When you are working on a legacy product, it is usually pretty clear where to find opportunities. By paying close attention to your existing product and your existing customers, you should be able to turn on an infinite stream of insight that will lead to ideas and opportunities. This is not to say that continuous innovation is easy–just that you have an obvious starting place

Disruptive innovation (also called new growth innovation, or green-field innovation, or countless other names) is more difficult, in part because there are fewer obvious starting places. If you are looking for the next new thing, where you should you look?

The Search for Good Idea

The search for good ideas often begins with someone invoking Linus Pauling, who famously said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas, and throw away the bad ones.” Many folks have taken this to heart: in the innovation and design world, you often see the search for ideas begin with brainstorming activities, activities that use “divergent thinking” to create as many ideas as possible.

Now I like brainstorming as much as the next guy, but I have rarely found it a sufficient tool. Without a properly framed question, without the right objectives, and without the right background knowledge, brainstorming gets you precisely nowhere.

The Right Question

Think of the search for new opportunities as a kind of Mad Libs puzzle–a fill in the blanks exercise that has the following crucial pieces:

Opportunity = business need + customer need + new possibility.

(And yes nerds, I know I should use the intersection symbol, but I’m not going to do it.)

Or, for you visual thinkers.




Filling in the Blanks

My favorite part of this formula is that you can use almost any method to fill in the blanks. To state the business need, for example, you can use your preferred method of expressing strategy, you can identify your desired constraints, you can insert a client brief– the approach is agnostic. Similarly, you want to state your customer’s needs, you can use personas, goals, objectives, jobs-to-be-done–really any tool you like.

New Possibilities?

What do we mean when we say “new possibilities” in this context? This is simply the set of things that are now possible because of change.

Putting it all together

The “formula” of course is a little bit of an illusion–because the equals sign implies that all you have to do is the arithmetic and you’ll have an idea. Instead, once you’ve filling the blanks, you still need to engage in some generative activities to create the idea. But I like to think of it this way–the formula functions as a set of stepping stones. You’re on one bank of a river–the side without an idea, and you want to get to the other side–the with a good idea. You might leap across the river in a single bound, but it will be much easier to step across the well-placed stepping stones. Laying out all this material will function as stepping stones, but it’s still up to you to take those steps.

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