Some friends came over this past weekend and brought a strategy/building game I had never played before. They gave me the basics of the rules to start, then I figured out the rest as we played. Perhaps because I didn't know all of the rules or I was new to the game, I made several moves that the others questioned or advised me against. Call it intuitiveness—or stubbornness—but I proceeded with those plays anyway. And I won the game.
It's common enough for first time game-players to win and when they do, we call it beginner’s luck (at least the annoyed, more experienced players do.) Reflecting on this experience, I couldn't help but think of the connection to innovation. How many times have we seen startups ignore or break “the rules” and end up disrupting entire industries? How many stories have we heard (apocryphal or otherwise) about employees in large companies ignoring management directives, sometimes even working in secret or on their own time in order to develop the next big thing?
How can we make our own beginner’s luck to bring fresh perspective for innovation? Here are three areas to think about:
1. Internal Resources: When planning a brainstorming or ideation session, invite new hires, interns, administrators, and/or colleagues from other departments or disciplines. Ideally, they will bring different ways of thinking, help challenge assumptions, come up with new combinations of ideas, or provide relevant analogs from their personal lives and professional experiences. Pair more and less experienced people together for maximum benefit.
2. External Resources: Working with external specialists and consultants can often move projects forward exponentially, but also consider tapping experts from other, analogous fields for inspiration. What might a veterinary tech be able to learn from a physician’s assistant or vice-versa? What inspiration could a home improvement retailer gain from a professional visual artist?
Another way to leverage the “beginner” as an external resource is to consult with a researcher who is an expert in technique, but perhaps new to your specific category. In a previous role on a beauty brand, I frequently worked with a male moderator who used his gender to plead complete category ignorance with female consumers and therefore got a lot of detailed and useful feedback. I recently completed a research project with a restaurant client, and having never dined in their—or their primary competitor’s restaurants—was able to bring a fresh and unbiased view to the findings that the client found highly credible.
3. Techniques/Approaches: When doing in-context or ethnographic research, coach teams to approach it with “alien eyes.” Meaning, try to consciously put aside existing assumptions and really notice, as if for the first time, elements of the interviewee’s physical environment, how they perform tasks and use products, etc. This can help you uncover inefficiencies, compensating behaviors, and inconsistencies that can lead to innovative solutions. Another technique, “innovation by analogy” looks to other industries or the natural world for inspiration by asking questions like “Who else encounters similar problems or challenges?” or “How else has a problem like this been solved before?”
Another tool I love to use for ideation, is insight or technology “mash-ups.” It’s a relatively simple technique in which you create a grid or pairs of disparate ideas, consumer insights or problems, product features or benefits—or technologies. By forcing your brain to find connections between two seemingly unrelated things, you can often come up with something truly unique.
There’s a Japanese Zen concept, frequently associated with the late Steve Jobs, called “shoshin,” meaning “beginner’s mind,” which involves approaching a subject as a beginner would—with openness and a lack of preconception—even if you are an expert. This is the counterpoint to the cognitive bias called “the curse of knowledge,” whereby an expert assumes what s/he knows is commonly known and has trouble seeing from the perspective of a novice. Leveraging the resources and approaches listed above can help us see from a beginner’s perspective all over again—building a bridge to that “lucky” break through to true innovation.
CC image courtesy of Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting