I'm on vacation next week, and will return the week of September 8th. In the meantime I'll leave you with this thought:
I was reading a discussion yesterday on a closed site I get to use where it was mentioned that perfectionism is what often holds people back from achieving their goals. When I think about this in terms of the Active Thinking concepts we've been discussing, I think perfectionism is a contributing factor when there is difficulty with this activity.
This doesn't mean that individuals are necessarily perfectionists, but most organizations reward getting right answers. The very nature of Active Thinking requires that the team discuss many potential answers that end up being wrong. By the end of the project, more wrong answers have been discussed than right answers. This goes against the grain of most organizations, which in most cases is a good thing. We want to ensure that a company is good at producing reliable products. But when used at the wrong time it can kill innovative solutions before they have time to mature.
I was managing a team once that was having a very difficult time getting started. We did a lot of consumer research, and the discussions were swirling around which frameworks would lead us to the answer. The team was very reluctant to just try a few and discard what wasn't working. No one wanted to be wrong. So one day I asked everyone to bring their worst idea to the meeting. Each team member was asked to present this idea and why it would be the worst thing we could possibly do. We then guided the discussion toward what it would take to make each idea "less wrong." This process required us to state our assumptions, question them, and build new constructs. We were finally on our way.
What I learned is that sometimes the best way to change direction is to exaggerate the direction in which we're already going. Since everyone was afraid to be wrong, we made being wrong the only way to complete the assignment correctly. Sometimes being wrong is the only way to be right.
I have to clarify a point made in my last post about taking time to think. I mentioned that clients tend to get nervous during the point in the project when they don't perceive that anything is happening, and that in fact, this thinking time is the most important part of the project.
What clients fear is that this time is spent truly doing nothing while waiting for inspiration to strike. I agree that this seldom works. What I'm talking about is what I will call Active Thinking. Louis Pasteur's quote "Chance favors the prepared mind" is relevant here. Inspiration may in fact strike, but the only way to know if the inspiration is useful is to have done all the active thinking work necessary to prepare the mind to recognize its value.
When I refer to the active thinking part of the process, what is happening is that the team is creating the conditions necessary to prepare their minds for the solution. They make models, try out analogies, and create frameworks, stories and scenarios. They discuss these models, test them against their research, and keep going until they have something robust. By this point, they are able to discern what will work, and what won't work quite easily. When an idea strikes them, they are able to discern its value quickly, and either embrace it or move on.
I'm going to start using the term Active Thinking. It's clear that there is a need to define this most important part of the process so that it's not confused with goofing off.
Insights are derived. They are not observed, nor are they instant. They take time.
Regardless of the end goals, the most important part of a project is the time in-between the end of the research and before developing solutions. This is probably true for any project, but here I am talking about projects that include some significant consumer research.
It is also the part of the project that many people want to cut short. Why? Because on paper it looks like nothing is happening. Throughout the rest of the process you are doing something. You're doing research, or you're making prototypes, or you're developing a presentation. Thinking is discounted because you're not actually doing anything that could result in the end deliverable.
And yet, it's quite actually the opposite. The thinking time is very active, especially when the end goal is to develop something completely new and different. In these cases, the consumer cannot give the answer directly. The basis upon which a new offering will be developed is not top of mind enough to be articulated, and so it must be derived. This process involves dissecting what was learned, analyzing it, triangulating and reconciling it with other information, developing new theories, and making models and scenarios to translate these theories into criteria for a new offering. It's a lot of hard work, and while very little of it may end up as part of the final deliverable, it is all a valuable part of how we get to the final deliverable.
Please don't cut the thinking time short. 99.9% of the time, the deep insight is not observed during the interview. Prototypes of solutions shouldn't be started the next day. This is a counter to the way most organizations work, and as such, is uncomfortable for many people. If it is uncomfortable for you, please resist the temptation to cut it short. It won't help. If someone offers to do it for you without allowing for some significant time devoted to actively thinking, don't trust them. It won't work.
The other day I was talking with a Director of a service business in a B2B market. They felt that they didn't need to focus on understanding their customers as much as a consumer products company. It's their understanding that the decision criteria for choosing their service was much more objective than the decision criteria a consumer exhibits when choosing products from the store shelf.
As the conversation continued, I learned that their customers do in fact have fairly straightforward selection criteria for their type of service. As I suspected, however, the actual decision making process isn't that simple. When I asked what these customers liked best about their service, the answer was that they were very consistent. They never let their customers down. That type of failure would leave the customer with egg on their face, and potentially cause their operations to be severely hampered. Then I asked how they were able to gain new customers, and how they gained the level of trust their customers needed to have in them. These answers were not so straightforward. I then asked how he imparted this knowledge to new employees. Silence.
This Director clearly has a good understanding of his customers and the intangible value his business provides. Yet until this conversation, he only articulated the tangible value to outsiders and new staff. It became clear that his customers were much more like consumers at the store shelf than he had thought.
I often hear discussions of whether to use the words consumer, customer, user, or target when describing the insight portion of my work. I use the word consumer because at the end of the day, a person decides whether or not to buy your product or service instead of an alternative. In that moment, this person is a consumer of what you are selling, and they are all influenced by their own tacit and explicit motivations. Ultimately, they are more similar than they are different.
There was an interesting article highlighted in Innovation Tools this week. It's about Corporate Social Networks, and it brings up the role of Idea Brokers within a company.
The article focused mostly on large companies, and how creating social networks within the company can help spread ideas across disciplines and corporate silos. It then talks about the value of rotating employees through different areas of business to foster the development of these networks, saying that these people often act as Idea Brokers across the company.
I hadn't used the term Idea Broker before, but I'm going to start. For myself, and I'm sure for many consultants, it's one of the intangible services we provide that is of greatest value. We often work with many different groups in a client organization, and are usually the ones who facilitate this type of idea exchange. Since we also work for multiple clients in very different industries, we can mine valuable ideas from one company and apply the thinking in a non-competitive way to another company. It's like we are the bees that cross pollinate the corporate landscape to foster innovation.
Of course, now I'm going to be thinking about the other types of intangible value we add. Idea Brokering is a good term to describe the value of what we're doing. What would we call the other types of intangible value we add?
A snippet in the Boston Globe yesterday posed an idea about why innovation is getting harder. According to B. Jones, an economist, the frontier of knowledge is becoming more difficult to reach within an innovator's lifespan. His analysis shows that the average age of first invention, degree of specialization, and teamwork required to innovate are all rising. They go so far as to suggest that an innovation crisis may be looming.
While I agree with the analysis that the frontier of knowledge is getting more difficult to reach, I disagree that this is the only path for meaningful innovation. Innovation is doing something different that adds value to your company. Of course that includes inventing new technology, but it is so much more. There is plenty of opportunity to be found in taking existing technology and making it actually usable, or in satisfying needs with new services rather than products, or in creating processes that allow your company to do new things. This list could go on and on.
The bottom line is that I don't believe there is a crisis looming for innovation. What I do believe is that there will be a crisis if innovation continues to be defined within such narrow parameters.
Most companies are concerned with protecting their Intellectual Property, and I wouldn't argue that this is a good idea. However, I'm increasingly hearing the concern that companies are spending valuable resources protecting Intellectual Property that has little market value.
I recently met a patent attorney with a large corporation who described it this way. He said that it used to be the earning a patent was the engineering equivalent of winning an Oscar. Now, he equates earning patents to collecting baseball cards among the engineers in the company. The patent group is very busy, and they are looking for ways to ensure that the company invests in protecting ideas that have the highest commercial value to the company.
This is a great question, and one that has not been given the corporate consideration it deserves. The easy answer would be to require that people filing for patents provide a market assessment of the value of their idea. The problem with that is you risk missing an opportunity to protect ideas for raw technology that may not have commercial value on their own, but provide the building blocks for a multitude of commercially valuable ideas.
There is no easy answer, but the question needs to be asked much more often. I'm interested to hear how others are managing this issue.
To finish expanding on the techniques used to uncover explicit and tacit motivations, let's talk about uncovering tacit motivations.
As mentioned in the previous post, tacit motivations are those that consumers either cannot or do not tell you about directly. As such, the research to uncover them needs to foster a deep connection with the consumer. Specific interview methods should be developed based on the type of information you need to learn, the overall goal of your project, and the types of people you are interviewing.
This type of research is conducted when you want to develop something new and different, and it is important to remember that the consumer may not be able to imagine something new and different. When we talked about uncovering explicit motivations, we talked about conducting in-context interviews to learn about problems consumers may have with your current products. In this case, we may also conduct an in-context interview, but the conversation with the consumer is different. It is less focused on having a consumer give you an answer, and more focused on having the consumer tell you how they feel when they perform a certain task. The interviewer may then probe about other tasks that make them feel the same way, or other solutions that may make them feel better. Direct statements are used mainly to exemplify deeper thoughts, and consumers can only be expected to describe their current reality. It's then your job to do translate this information into criteria for your new offering.
Since you're trying to create something that does not yet exist, you cannot take the consumers' suggestions at face value. The translation between what they say and the criteria you need to develop for a successful new product may take several iterations. For example, you may discover a strong theme in your research that consumers lack confidence in performing certain tasks related to your category. You may then find out that other situations may build confidence, but may not be related to your category. Your job then is to identify the basic elements of confidence building, and find ways to incorporate that type of criteria into your new product. This may take several iterations, will require multiple translation steps, and it is not a linear process at all.
These research methods can yield great insights to establish criteria for new products, services, and business models. Just remember that the process is messy and indirect. Failure tends to occur when the group tries to derive new offerings from things consumers have said directly. The time must be taken to make the links from tacit motivation to tangible offering.
A couple of people have asked me to expand on the techniques used to uncover explicit and tacit motivations. Let's start with explicit motivations.
As mentioned in the previous post, explicit motivations are those that consumers can tell you about directly. As such, the research to uncover them can be very direct. I'm not going to be prescriptive about specific research methods, because what's more important here is knowing when and how to utilize the information consumers give you.
If you are trying to improve your current offering, it is important to set up conditions in which the consumer can describe the actual use of your product for you. First, make sure to talk to people who are doing the task your product helps them to do. Then, make sure you talk to people who use your product, people who use your competitors' products, and people who do not use either. You want to understand the role your product plays for them. The same is true if you offer a service. It's important to set up use conditions that mimic actual use as closely as possible, and observe, as well as interview, the consumers. Most ergonomics and human factors research methods fall into this category. An in-context interview setting is often used, but if you have a group setting or online experience, that's fine also. Just make sure you are aware of the impact the method may have on the research.
Since you are trying to improve upon what already exists, you can take the consumers' comments at face value. The translation between what they say and what you need to do to improve is very straightforward, as the consumer is usually familiar with the existing category and offerings within it. You may not execute their specific suggestions, but the needs are discernable and solutions can be defined. Evaluation methods should be equally straightforward, and you may return to the same consumers for feedback on how well proposed solutions are working.
Direct research methods can yield great insights to the explicit motivations that drive consumers to use your product or service over your competitions'. Just remember that they are most useful in determining the best way to improve your offering, and are of limited value if used when you are trying to develop something that is truly breakthrough in your market.