Paul Hobcraft wrote a nice blog about the genesis of an idea in his article entitled Making Innovation Practice Spread. In his article he talks about two schools of thought. The first is that ideas originate from generating ideas – brainstorming and so forth. The other school suggests that ideas originate from adopting new practices. I think both are true, yet there’s perhaps too much reliance on generating ideas, because the activity seems demonstrable.
I think there’s a deeper, more interesting concept within this discussion, and that is: what causes ideas? Why do we have ideas? Leave aside for a second whether idea generation or adopting new practices is a better approach. Ideas are abundant, and obviously easily generated. But what is it that causes humans to generate ideas?
Underlying any idea is an unmet need or an unfilled gap. An idea only becomes compelling when it meets a need or a gap that is felt by a significant number of people and is important enough and urgent enough to fill. The gap can be in a process, in the absence of a product or service, in the way a customer or individual experiences a specific event or process, in the business model or channel, but the origin of all ideas is a gap.
The gap can be identified through customers who experience poor service or inadequate solutions from existing products, or by imagining what “could be” if a new product or service offered far more feature or benefit than existing products or services. That is, the gap can be real, experienced every day, or projected, not currently a gap but one that can be recognized when realistic solutions are presented. Once a gap is identified, the next goal is to understand if it is important, pervasive and if the investment to bridge the gap is worth the cost of the attempt.
Gap Spotters and Idea Generators
Actually, I believe most people are very attuned to gap spotting. There’s probably not a day that goes by that many people don’t comment on gaps in their lives. Gaps formed by inadequate or incomplete products, poor experiences, incomplete solutions or business models. In fact we are surrounded by gaps, but fail to innovate to close those gaps. That’s because many of us adapt to our surroundings rather than seek innovative solutions to close gaps. The Kirton Adaption-Innovation Index suggests that many of us simply adapt to inadequate processes, products, services and business models rather than seek to change them. Or we just shrug our shoulders and accept that inadequate or incomplete solutions are a part of life.
To some extent that’s why I think idea generators are so interesting. Many of us encounter gaps every day, yet we fail to notice the gap, or become accustomed to the gap and fail to stop and consider why the gap exists and how to fill it. Idea generators aren’t necessarily smarter, or more observant or more sensitive to gaps, they often simply have less acceptance or tolerance for the gap, and are more willing to spend time filling the gap with ideas than moving on and accepting the inadequate current solution.
Relevant, Important and Pervasive
The difference between good idea generators (and valuable ideas) is the difference between Michael Keaton’s role as Blaze in Night Shift and Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple. Keaton plays a role in Night Shift where he is constantly generating ideas, feeding them into a small pocket recorder (“Note to self: Feed the tuna fish mayonnaise”) but his solutions, while addressing a gap, don’t address important, relevant and pervasive problems, or don’t present valuable, realistic solutions.
Too often, many business managers and executives view customers as unusual suspects, who simply don’t understand the company’s products and services. Customers use the products and services and experience gaps, while executives think customers simply don’t understand the capability or value of the product. Internal teams struggle to “generate” ideas when they fail to understand the customers’ gaps or needs. And most firms have little insight into which needs or gaps are truly relevant, important and pervasive.
Don’t need drills, need holes
Philip Kotler reigns as a pre-eminent marketing genius by noting that customers don’t need drills, they need holes. A drill is the tool that helps you achieve what you really want – a hole to place a bracket or mount a picture frame. The drill is simply a tool. Likewise, we can debate for days about the various innovation tools and approaches – TRIZ, Idea Generation, Mind Mapping, analogies, etc, but these miss a key point. The tools are interesting buy ultimately less important than the identification of the gap. Too much emphasis in innovation is placed on the tools and techniques, and not enough on discovery, empathy and insights about customers and gaps. If the need is correctly identified, the tools are interesting but less important.
Apple, and perhaps Jobs himself, is a good example of this insight. From the outside we may not completely understand how Apple innovates – which tools or techniques it applies for example. But we do know that Apple through Jobs at least has placed its finger on the pulse of a long standing and misunderstood need – the need for more design, more user experience and more simplicity in computing and consumer electronics. The gap was there from the beginning, and it has been important and pervasive. In fact it remains so today. The tools we use to generate ideas are secondary to the gaps we define.
Mind the Gap
It’s the gap that matters. Far too often we ask people who ignore the gaps, or think the customer doesn’t understand the product or service to generate ideas about existing products and services. They are not attuned to spotting the gaps, and even when they do spot gaps the gaps they identify are often artificial or unimportant. Innovation starts with empathy and understanding the customer and the unmet or undermet needs that exist. If those are accurately identified, the rest is far simpler. Yet many people who work in innovation, as consultants or on innovation teams, have little experience talking with customers, acting as a customer or thinking deeply and carefully about the gaps in products, services, channels or experiences. If you want true innovation, go find a gap.
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.