Where You Start Determines Where You Finish

What’s the best way to win with our new ideas? One avenue to follow is to try to make sure that these ideas don’t just improve on what’s currently out there, but instead they carve out a new space for themselves. But how?

The Design of Business by Roger Martin has some suggestions. It’s a very good book, and I’ll be talking about it some more over the next few days. If you want to read a good review/summary of the book, Anders Sundelin has done a great job with that.

Here’s a quote that jumped out at me – it’s from Mike Lazaridis, one of the founders of Research in Motion, the company that makes Blackberrys:

In a business, no matter how good the process is, no matter how much you’ve got it down pat, no matter how much money you’re making, how efficient, you have to always go back and say ‘Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re seeing the market? Are we dealing with incomplete information?’ Because that’s what’s going to get you: it’s not necessarily that some young whippersnapper’s going to come up with some better idea than you. They’re going to start from a different premise and they’re going to come to a different conclusion that makes you irrelevant.

The part with the added emphasis is the key point. Once an organisation has established a strong position, they are rarely displaced by someone that figures out how to do what they’re doing in a better way. That’s how we end up with technologies, products and systems that dominate markets even though their performance is only adequate, not great.

The threat comes from someone figuring out a new way to ask the questions about what people need. It’s starting from a different premise that gets you to a novel answer.

How do we find these different premises? That’s the key question.

Martin suggests that design thinking is the best way to do this (as does Roberto Verganti in Design-Driven Innovation). He has a list of suggestions for doing this. These include:

  • Seek out people with extreme views, and reframe these in a way that allows you to use them to fuel a creative approach to problem solving. This is similar to the idea from The Power of Pull, which suggests that novel ideas always come from the edges, not the centre.
  • Learn to think both analytically and intuitively. One of the key points in the book is that design thinking is a combination of analytical, engineering type thinking, and the more intuitive/creative approach. We can’t prove in advance that our ideas will work, which makes a pure analytical approach difficult. At the same time, our ideas have to be grounded in some kind of business reality, which makes pure intuition similarly problematic. That’s we need to balance the two.
  • Understand unfamiliar concepts by using analogy. As I’ve said before, using analogies is one of the best techniques around for coping with uncertainty. If you can find an analogy that is different from the one that everyone else in your market is using, you’ve got a chance at coming up with a novel approach.

Start line -2010 Iditarod

All three of these techniques help you find a way to start by asking new questions. We need to do this because it is only by asking new questions that we come up with novel answers.

If we are starting from the same assumptions that everyone else is using, then we are in a race. That’s fine if you have some kind of head start, or if you have enough resources to ensure that you stay in front. However, if you don’t have either of these, you need to find a way to run a different race.

And the best way to do that is to start by answering a different question.

(Photo from flickr/AbiznessDigital under a creative commons license)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “Where You Start Determines Where You Finish

  1. Too bad that Lazaridis didn’t take his own advice and it’s now been put on the defensive by a not-so-young whippersnapper who started “from a different premise” (make the whole web mobile, not just email) and they came up with a different solution that has made them pretty much “irrelevant.”

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