“Know what the opportunity really is, before generating ideas”
Opportunity. Solution. Two words that have a chasm of difference in meaning when you want to innovate. In a workshop in Bahrain, I asked teams to identify an opportunity to work on.
One of the teams wrote as their opportunity, “Train staff better in our sales outlets.” I questioned what problem the customers have, as you have an opportunity when someone has a difficulty of some kind, a problem.
“They have to queue too long in store to pay bills or buy our products,” was the response. So, a question for you: is “train staff better in our sales outlets” an opportunity or a solution?
Training staff is one solution to excessive queuing in store. But what is the problem the client has? Is it not being able to pay a bill quickly in store? Or do they find stores an inconvenient way to pay? Or is it that they want to buy an expensive product but have to queue behind people paying bills? Or… the list could be long and the customer could have many problems. [Please refer to Yes! And blog 147 for a tool to map problems].
Equally, there could be many valid solutions from “stagger the billing date” to “introduce new channels for bill payment”, to…we don’t really know until we have explored and clarified the opportunity.
One way to state this team’s initial opportunity is to say simply, “We have a lot of people queuing in stores, especially at certain times in the week and month. This causes customer complaints, lost sales…etc.”
Why is it important?
It is important to explore and clarify the opportunity so that you can develop the right solution. In this case, the team sensed an opportunity from seeing queues in store and immediately leapt to a solution to define it; which might work, but equally might not. This is an issue that impacts on many organisations.
Why does this happen?
This happens for a variety of reasons. Four of the most common are:
- People make an assumption that they know what the problem is
- Narrow thinking; people do not involve others who can provide a wider perspective on the problem, challenge assumptions and contribute more ideas. This includes the individual inventor as well as those working in organisations.
- Lack of structure; People do not use a structured model to innovate
- Creative style; some people like to generate ideas but are less keen to explore the opportunity.
There is one other important factor too. We just can’t help it. After writing the first draft of this article, I sat in a concert, listening to my son’s orchestra and watched as the children struggled to turn the music paper.
The first thought that came into my head was not, “They have a problem turning pages”, it was instead, “They should use a large iPad or Kindle on a music stand and read the music from it. They could use remote controls on their instrument to turn the pages…. More ideas, etc, etc.”
That might be a great idea, Internet research shows me that the Brussels Philharmonic is already doing this, however, by implementing this first idea and not exploring the problem with the musicians, the result might be an expensive flop.
What is the impact?
Four important impacts are:
- Organisations waste resources, money and staff time, implementing the wrong solution. It is dramatically cheaper to spend a small amount of money and time to explore and clarify the opportunity than it is to implement the wrong solution
- They don’t solve the customer problem. The impact of this is obvious.
- People become demotivated; leaders will often reject a solution because, with their wider perspective they can identify many different solutions. This can demotivate people who have a lot invested in their own idea
- Leaders become frustrated; front line people often resist solutions if they think they are wrong and so delay or undermine implementation.
How to overcome the issue?
Here are some examples:
- Use a structured model to exploit opportunities and encourage people to use it [please click here to obtain a complimentary Section 1 of our book “Innovate to Learn, Don’t Learn to Innovate”, which explains our Inn8 model”]
- Seek evidence that people have explored and clarified the opportunity as well as provided their solution (one company we worked with in Ireland mandated that people must do this before proposing solutions and reduced the number of rejected ideas)
- Encourage and facilitate people to collaborate with a wide range of departments when they develop solutions. This will encourage a wider exploration of the opportunity
- When you have an immediate idea to solve a problem, congratulate yourself, record it, then start exploring the problem
- Listen for ways people describe an opportunity and check that there is no implied solution in it
- Develop an understanding of the different creative styles your people have, (for more information, please click here Yes! And Blog 141) as certain styles have a tendency to rush to find solutions with only a cursory examination of the problem
- Consider recent solutions that your team developed. Did the team consider the opportunity sufficiently?
I will close on one major source of ideas in organisations, which is the “ideas scheme”. Unfortunately, these schemes have a reputation for not working in many organisations. There can be a host of reasons why they don’t work, from lack of leadership support and bureaucracy to poorly thought through ideas. However, in the context of this article, might I suggest that the name “idea scheme” implies that companies are seeking solutions?
One solution might be to call them, “opportunity schemes”, but that may not be the best idea, because I haven’t explored the opportunity thoroughly.
Create a great week for yourself.
John Brooker I Yes! And. Think Innovatively.
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About the author
John Brooker is a former Senior Vice President of Visa where he focus on innovating new products and services. He works with teams internationally to maximise opportunities with innovative thinking. He is the author of “Innovate to Learn, Don’t Learn to Innovate“.