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How to get a big idea

Disruptive innovations don’t come from brainstorming. They come from understanding your organisation’s purpose, your customer's problems and designing solutions from a clean slate.

Step 1: Why? Why do you need an idea and how does it fit with the purpose of the organisation? Come to think of it, what is the purpose of your organisation? Do you have a clear social raison d’etre, beyond just making money?

An organisation’s purpose needs to be not just blah, blah, blah ignored in an annual report. It needs to be lived as well as written, it needs to draw in customer engagement and be inspirational enough to get you out of bed eagerly energised for another long day.

Google’s purpose is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Tesla’s purpose is “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” One of Elon Musk’s other companies is SpaceX, whose purpose is “to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”

With a clear purpose that gets your juices flowing you’ve got something that’ll have your subconscious mind continuously scanning for possibilities to achieve it.

Step 2: Who? Who are you building your stuff for and what do they care? I mean, what is it that your customers care about most? What are their burning problems, or desires?

As entrepreneurs, we get ideas we naturally think are fabulous and want to rush into production. Amazingly, it doesn’t occur to us to find out whether anyone cares enough to buy it, as it seems so blindingly obvious that they will.

And then there’s that old chestnut, that you can’t ask people what they want, since they either don’t really know, they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear, or they can’t imagine something better. An apocryphal story about Henry Ford has him saying, “If I’d asked people what they wanted before we built the Model T, they would have said faster horses.” Maybe right, but what they really meant was “faster transport.” Steve Jobs reportedly never asked customers what they wanted, but he was an astute observer of their behavior. And Steve Jobs was absolutely purpose driven.

Sometimes understanding customer needs just means asking a bigger question. Years ago, when I was working as a marketing consultant, I was asked by the advertising agency for TAA, as Qantas domestic airlines was then called, to fly up and down the east coast in both TAA and Ansett planes and come up with a strategy for differentiating their advertising. In those days, you could fly First Class or Economy. After a week of flying it was obvious, there was really no difference between the airlines, but there were two main classes of economy passengers with very different needs and wants. There were business travellers who needed a schedule that got them up and back on the same day and an uneventful, peaceful flight on which to think, read or snooze. And there were holidaymakers who wanted the fun and entertainment to start the moment they got on board.

I didn’t need brainstorming to see what TAA needed was not a new ad, but rather a new cabin arrangement. I recommended they split Economy into two separate classes, Business and Holiday, and treat each group of customers as they wanted to be treated.

TAA did introduce Business Class, but passed on what I still think was a good opportunity with Holiday Class travel.

Step 3: How? How are you going to solve the problem, or fulfill the desire you’ve identified?

If you’re planning an incremental innovation, it can be useful to start with the current best available solution, examine what’s missing and start investigating how to add, subtract or change it to make it better. Perhaps some brainstorming might be useful here, but if you want a disruptive innovation, to create game changing new products, services or business models, that approach won’t fly.

For disruptive innovations, you need to start with a clean slate. Totally reimagine things from the ground up, as if no previous solution existed.

If there was no car, but you needed to transport your family, how would you do it? Now, you need to think about basic principles of energy and engineering, the wave of future technology and what’s possible. What will power it? Will it roll, glide, hover or fly? Will you buy it, rent it, share it or access it some other way? Could the size and capacity change as your family grows up? Perhaps you’ll want to have a refreshing flat bed nap in your vehicle, while it drives you wherever you want to go. Surely solar panels, glazed into the carbon fibre exterior, can solve the classic Aussie summer dilemma of returning to a parked vehicle that could bake a pizza.

For disruptive innovations, you’ll also need to unlearn what you have unknowingly assumed are the limiting definitions of the kind of product, or service you plan and the business you’re in.

For example, we currently go to our doctors and pay when we’re sick. But, what if you paid your doctor when you were well and got money back if you became sick? Your ‘keep me healthy’ monthly investment would allow the doctor to take the time to check health alarms sent to him from the nanotech digital sensors he or she supplied you with that monitor your vital signs. Perhaps the model goes a step further and does away with the doctor. Irregularities compared by computer algorithms with normal patterns based on your genome and profile would trigger an expert system diagnosis and suggest treatments, or prophylactic measures. Failure on your side of the agreement to take the medicine, or take the recommended daily exercise, would trigger additional payments from you.

Several recent studies have forecast up to 40% of jobs could be replaced by robotics and AI in a decade’s time, though others have suggested we’ll take on different roles and new jobs will emerge. However, during the earlier industrial revolution, there was a forty-year lag before income, jobs and living standards surged as a result of the new economy. If that lag is repeated, will we need to reimagine the idea and purpose of work? Will we live in HG Well’s utopian ‘Men like Gods’ or Aldus Huxley’s ironic parody ‘Brave New World?’

Technology and the ingenuity of entrepreneurs are already outstripping the ability of government and regulation to keep up. As artificial intelligence gets cracking it may be our ethics and adaptive capabilities that are tested next.

If you think we’ve already seen the peak of disruptive innovations and you believe the pace of change must slow down, nap at your own risk. I think we’re in for a wild, but ultimately rewarding ride.

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