Eight Essential Questions for Every Corporate Innovator
February 2, 2014 Editor 0
One of the first, and most lasting, pieces of career advice I received came from Linda Bush, my first project manager when I was a wee pup working at McKinsey & Company. “Ask a lot of questions,” Linda advised me. “You might think you are being annoying, but it’s the only way you learn. And trust me, people will tell you when you have crossed the line.”
There’s nothing quite like asking a good question. Bush’s advice helped me in those early days to learn about technical tasks (the magic of pivot tables in Excel), the seeming banalities of the working world (the mysterious expense report), and the subtle nuances of a profession (“Why did you say that then?”). Research by Hal Gregersen and Jeffrey Dyer in fact shows that questioning is one of the behaviors that successful innovators share.
So I’ll pose a question now: What questions should corporate innovators use to increase their odds of success? There are some classics out there, such as Peter Drucker’s (“If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?”), Ted Levitt’s timeless contribution (“What business are we really in?”), and the question Andy Grove asked to transform Intel (“If the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”).
Beyond those classics, consider using the following questions to help you crystalize the entire innovation process from beginning to end — by improving your ability to spot new growth opportunities, pinpoint disruptive threats, shape compelling offerings, and commercialize your ideas.
Identifying New Growth Opportunities
- What problem is the customer struggling to solve? Steve Jobs famously said it is not the customer’s job to know what he wants. I agree. It is the innovator’s job. One of the clearest signs of an opportunity for innovation is someone demonstrating that a problem is important to her by spending time or money trying to solve it and expressing frustration (either vocally or visibly) because existing solutions fall short.
- Which customers can’t participate in a market because they lack skills, wealth, or convenient access to existing solutions? A time-tested path to disruptive growth is to compete not against fierce competitors, but against what we call nonconsumption. Making it simpler, easier, and more affordable for people to do what they historically have been trying to do is a great way to create growth. Doing so for people who are locked out of a market is what made companies like eBay, Google, and Southwest Airlines the powerhouses they are today.
Identifying the Threat of Disruption
- Where are we overshooting the market by providing features that users don’t care about and don’t want to pay for? One of the central tenets of disruptive innovation is that companies innovate faster than people’s needs change. People will always take better products, but when they can’t use or don’t want to pay for the premium features, it creates opportunities for simpler, cheaper solutions.
- If you were going to disrupt your company, how would you do it? Despite the fact that the concept has been in the public domain for close to 20 years, disruption still seems to blindside far too many companies. What is particularly punishing is that the disruptors are almost always in plain sight but tend to be discounted by the market leaders. (As late as 2008, the CEO of Blockbuster said “I’ve been frankly confused by this fascination that everybody has with Netflix….Netflix doesn’t really have or do anything that we can’t or don’t already do ourselves.”) Asking this simple question – and looking for companies that are making headway with a disruptive model – may at least inoculate you to some degree against this threat.
Designing Compelling Offerings
- Who has already solved the problem you are trying to address? You might think this question helps you drop an idea entirely, but it actually suggests the opposite. One mistake many innovators make is they think that they get extra credit just for doing something original or uniquely difficult. Innovation is something different, surely, but something different that creates value for a customer and the company. And you want to find the quickest path you can to value creation. Follow the advice of the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” Odds are someone in the world has already solved the problem you’re seeking to address in some other context. Inspiration might come from a different industry, country, or company, but when you find it, applying that approach to your problem can short-circuit innovation development times dramatically.
- What can you do that few other companies in the world can do? The ferocious pace of entrepreneurialism makes it increasingly difficult for companies to innovate at the same speed as the market in which they participate. Speed alone is insufficient. Companies should seek to innovate better than the market in which they participate — by taking advantage of a trusted brand, unique access to a distribution channel, or proprietary technological know-how. Zeroing in on what makes you unique maximizes the chances of creating a powerful and compelling offering.
Commercializing Your Idea
- What assumption are you making that, if false, would blow your strategy up? Every idea is partially right and partially wrong. Promising ideas often fail to make it to market because the innovators cannot find out what part is wrong and make adjustments fast enough. To speed their way to market, good innovators adopt the scientific method. They clearly identify the biggest uncertainties behind their idea and rigorously design and execute experiments to test their assumptions. And like good scientists, they study unexpected outcomes as much as expected ones.
- How can you learn more affordably and efficiently? Experiments need not be complicated and expensive. A phone call to an expert can shine light on a critical operational assumption. Showing customers a rough mockup of an idea can give you an early read on their interest. Making some effort to seek simple and resource effective ways to learn may make the difference between successfully getting to market and running out of money before you ever do.
“Don’t just do something, stand there.” It’s a phrase that young medical students might hear to remind them that sometimes doing nothing (immediately) is the best course of action. The rush to take action before a root cause of a symptom is clear can cause more harm than good. While innovation should no doubt be pursued actively, taking the time to consider these and related questions can be a great way to focus activities and tilt the odds of success in your favor.
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