I hadn’t planned on becoming a student of innovation. It just sort of happened.
A few weeks ago I was in New York City, at an event produced by a major technology vendor to showcase its latest products. It’s the sort of company that prides itself on cultivating breakthrough thinking among all its employees, and to foster that it has an internal program to help turn ideas into action. That too was part of the showcase, in the form of a little side room where a pair of its full-time innovation catalysts took attendees through a shortened version of a brainstorming session.
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We were given a problem: The persona was that of a woman in her mid-thirties who works as a consultant. She was represented by a nearly life-sized stock art photo, and a thought-bubble placed near her head said, “I want to watch my diet but I’m always travelling and I never know what city I’m going to wind up in, so keeping track of food choices is difficult.” The innovation process to tackle this was divided into three blank white boards: One for trying to articulate the problem, one for brainstorming possible ideas, and one for figuring out an experiment or prototype to test our possible solutions. Sticky notes and Sharpies were passed out.
Many of us suggested the problem was too much travel. Some thought it was more about a difficulty in having healthy food options at various hotels or conferences. A few pondered whether she just needed a good scheduling system. From there, product ideas were abundant. There were several suggestions for diet-related apps and calendars while I, being the editor of expertIP, suggested a unified communications solution like videoconferencing to help cut down on the jet-setting.
When it came time to talk about prototypes and experiments, though, we seemed to get bogged down in the details. When you really thought through some of the app ideas, a lot of them might have already been invented. The scheduling systems, the virtual assistants all seemed expensive to put into a real trial. That’s when one of our facilitators offered the most valuable tool in the entire session.
“What’s the lie we’re telling ourselves to make us stay in love with some of these ideas?” he asked. The point was well taken. We were all making pretty quick assumptions about this fictional person and her needs, and some of the knee-jerk products to cure them were based on technologies or tactics we liked ourselves. That’s not always a bad thing, but by taking a moment to consider their validity we were forced to take a few steps back, and wonder whether we’d properly captured the problem.
Although we probably failed the exercise, I realized that true innovation requires an incredible honesty — the kind that transcends the ego of the innovator. The earlier you recognize what’s true and what you want to be true, the faster you’ll see results.
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Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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