Where is your next good idea going to come from? If you work on an innovation desk, whether in marketing, insights or R&D, you are constantly facing this question. While line extensions can give you an immediate bump, that long tail you create will ultimately cause other problems. You need something new. An idea that will knock the competition on its head and change the rules of the game. A disrupter, perhaps.

There’s no ‘easy’ button on innovation. The challenges are practical and real: teams need to be engaged; budgets sufficient to properly explore, evaluate and iterate; and time needs to be available to do the thinking. Usually at least one of these items is in short supply, which means you have to adapt and be willing to make sacrifices.

Clients engage us to help with innovation at various points in the process. From the fuzzy front end exploration to ideation to evaluation of concepts, positioning, even performance after launch at shelf. We are often asked to flex to the innovation approach our clients use, whether it’s Design Thinking straight out of Stanford, Clayton Christensen’s highly regarded ‘jobs theory,’ or the client’s own in-house method. Our philosophy with all our work is to always be human-centric – we put the consumer at the center. After all, the product or service is being designed for them. Beyond that, we pride ourselves on our flexibility to work within our client’s needs, bringing a fresh perspective to the process and methods that achieve the project objectives.

If you are looking to refresh your innovation, here are our tenets for success:

Put the Consumer First

Spending time with a consumer, where they live and how they shop – can be a innovation game changer.

Spending time with a consumer, where they live and how they shop – can be a innovation game changer.

Building empathy and understanding of your consumer is critical if you hope to make a product that will appeal to them. While the consumer may not be able to tell you exactly what they want, when you get out and spend time with them, you’ll be able to observe what they cannot tell you. Use ethnographic techniques that take you in-context where a consumer works, lives, and plays. The resulting insights and deep empathy can inspire a break-through product or service.

Take the Team Along on the Journey

We are big proponents of bringing client teams out into the field and helping them learn what there is to learn from consumers. This yields deeper insights and collective understanding. There are often practical realities of time and money that get in the way. These can’t always be overcome but you can create a learning plan that engages people in the right time and in the right way. Here’s how we’ve gotten creative:

  • Utilize video to bring the research into the office

  • Piggyback on other travel to outside markets

  • Dedicate a smaller group to be the consumer champions. Their responsibility? To bring back the stories, and transfer those to the rest of the team. The end result is stronger alignment sooner.

Get Fresh Perspective

Clients often want to speak with their existing consumers to identify unmet needs. This can be insightful but if you want to expand your business you need to innovate for the people not already buying your product but “look like” the ones who are so you can satisfy their needs. Don’t be afraid to go outside the safety zone of your brand champion to learn what else is out there. A fresh perspective can be just the clarity you need. 

Make it a Game

Our proprietary empathy-building board game, Lifeology™, pairs you up with your customers for immersive game play and learning.

Our proprietary empathy-building board game, Lifeology™, pairs you up with your customers for immersive game play and learning.

Gamification is a valuable approach that gets consumers to share or evaluate without being too much in their heads, because they are focused on the task of the game. When our clients at General Mills were starting their internal empathy program, we developed Lifeology™ as a tool to help them foster instant rapport and quickly establish empathy on deeper topics than traditional research methods. Two of the secrets to gamifying research are keep it easy to play and make it relatable. To help consumers identify preferred ideas we have used a ‘Shark Tank’ approach. However, your sessions shouldn’t only be fun and games. Respondents and team members alike should be engaged to get the most out of the experience.

No Cookie Cutters Here

No two projects are the same, even for the same team in the same division. There’s a clear benefit to having a process but it’s worth taking a fresh eye to your approach and tactics each and every time based on the needs of the project. Even then, your approach may feel similar to what’s been done, but let the tactics evolve. ‘Sacred cows’ have no place in innovation. You’ll find this ‘innovation on innovation’ will help build better quality learning, deeper insights, and improved, well-informed decisions. One word of warning: make sure you communicate to the team and relevant stakeholders the changes you are making and the benefit – otherwise you’ll face internal headwinds.

Go Slow to Go Fast

Everyone’s in a rush these days. Timelines are crunched, decision gates are looming on the horizon. We appreciate the need to move quickly but often a measure of the “slow” will help you go “fast” down the road. The best ideas and insights are generated when you have time to think. It’s in boredom that the mind opens up and wonders about what’s possible. That’s why people often report having brainstorms while doing the dishes, taking a shower, or mowing the lawn. All are repetitious and routine yet we can’t really multi-task while doing it. This focus on the task creates space in our brains, which means our minds are free to wander and we have time to think. It may be challenging to get the team to do the dishes (but not a bad idea if they are up for it!), so try taking walks and get out of your usual spaces to help stimulate new thoughts.

Look Beyond Your Category for Inspiration

When you spend so much time working on a particular category that is part of a larger category, you can lose sight of the inspiration that comes from other places. Structure a workshop that explores the near-in possible - from R&D sharing what they are excited about to field trips where teams explore and bring back inspiration artifacts. Those can then become fodder for ideation. Then, look at what might be further-out future thinking. Talk to academics and experts as well as consumers. Consider cultural and societal influences that will shape your target consumer’s future day-to-day life.

Keep Brainstorms Like Thunderstorms – Short and Intense

Keep ideas flowing, there are no sacred cows.

Keep ideas flowing, there are no sacred cows.

Whether its direct with consumers or internal team members, we find short brainstorm work best. They encourage focus and create an energy that keeps ideas flowing. Because we also recognize that subsequent looks at ideas will help improve and spark new thoughts, we also put ideas back through for another round or two of polish and refine.

Remember, there are no sacred cows. The next time you are doing one of those mindless repetitive tasks like the dishes or taking a shower, ask yourself the question: What can we be doing differently with our innovation process? Let us know what comes to mind.

Share your experiences and join the conversation on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.