How to innovate: six techniques that lead to breakthrough ideas.
Published 28/07/2020
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When you stop growing, you start dying, or so William S. Burroughs believed.

Often the ideas that underpin steady growth (over, say, trend-based shifts in demand) are incremental innovations, such as a rebrand, updating technologies and systems, or bringing new expertise on board.

Sometimes, however, they take the shape of bold step-changes. These may comprise of similar foundational ingredients, but these ideas, and their implementation, are more radical and, when done well, produce greater gains.

Another way of looking at it is as leadership expert, David J. Schwartz, put it: ‘Think little goals and expect little achievements.’ This challenge is currently greater, granted, but it’s arguably more important than ever.

How can you strategically think big, then? At Wilson Fletcher, we frequently get asked what the secret is to having ‘big ideas’. I’ve distilled 30 years of helping companies innovate into six key techniques, which are excellent starting blocks for any company wanting to achieve growth through change.

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

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, as it’s incredibly hard to identify your own embedded truths.

In many of our projects, the key breakthrough comes when we are 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 a 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.

An easy example is micromanagement. This assumption makes logical sense; when you pay people to provide focused and systematically monitored input, they are obliged to deliver the work.

We’re not robots, however, and for people to excel as individuals – both in their work and their morale – they need the freedom and autonomy to do so. We need to focus on outputs and not inputs.

Assumptions sit in the same wheelhouse as logic: when challenged and unpicked to make room for new ways of thinking, it is often then that you can make meaningful changes, or open up space for the big ideas.

We’re not quite finished with logic, though. Whilst I have the bit between my teeth, my next point...

2. 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 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, as 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.

3. 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, which is why many established companies don’t identify them.

In a recent 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?’

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 owned, did 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.

4. 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 in 2018, 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. Simply applying visible parallels would only tap into a fraction of the full potential of parallel experiences.

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 statistician’s’ 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 and active 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, no, we don’t have a formula. We do seem to use a similar set of mixing methods pretty frequently, but different combinations seem to work each time. Like cooking with eggs: there’s no end of possibilities for what good you can produce.

Mark Wilson is the Founding Partner and CEO of Wilson Fletcher, a business innovation consultancy that helps established companies design the strategies, services and experiences needed to succeed in the digital economy.

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