4 really simple ways to come up with game changing ideas.

This entry was originally posted on August 24, 2013 on www.ulliappelbaum.com

We all aspire to come up with innovative and break-through ideas, don’t we? Somehow it’s a core driver of what we, as marketing and advertising professionals, are trying to do. Come up with great ideas that are new and fresh. Ideas that build markets, businesses and brands. Ideas that change the game. Ideas whose success is measured by the amount of $ they generate and the amount of people they touch. By the amount of recognition they create. That’s why many of us get up in the morning.

I also believe that most of us have this fundamental belief that we can come up with the next great idea, that we are all little geniuses, that we are all great marketers and advertisers. That we have this special ingredient in us that is required to come up with the next big idea or solution to a problem. I know I do.

But here is the simple and boring truth.

Coming up with new and fresh ideas that change the game is really not that difficult (now selling them within an organization is another issue). All you need is a little bit of structure and rigor, which I am aware, might sound a little counter-intuitive.

The foundation of my statement lies in Einstein’s definition of insanity which we all know and probably have used at one stage or another (I know I have).

“Insanity is defined as doing the same things over and over and expecting different results”

Doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.

The logical conclusion of this quote is that in order to be able to come up with innovative ideas (which by definition are “different”) all we need to do is do things differently. It’s quite simple isn’t it?

Now in my business, the strategery business, this means 4 very simple things.

1. Use different data sources and research philosophies. Data is plenty-full out there and the reality is that most of us use the same data sources just like competitors probably track the same type of market data (published studies, social listening, trend reports, tracking studies, and so on). And as a result, because we are all smart, we all come up with the same or similar conclusions and solutions (this is always my biggest fear in pitches, that someone else came up with the same solution). That’s not very innovative. The trick here I think is to look for new sources of data and information and approaches with the objective to get to new insights. I’ve seen that work wonderfully many times with my clients. A company that heavily relies on hard core quantitative data and functional messaging can gain new insights by going highly qualitative for once and focusing on the consumers’ inner world rather than the products it sells. On the other hand, a company that has been driven by guts and just stumbled into success (and there are a lot of them) can benefit from a more rigorous quantitative consumer segmentation study or U&A. A company that had historically relied on the old school persuasion model (attitudes and emotions change behaviors) can benefit from looking at their business through the angle of econometrics, neuro-science or design thinking.

The concept at its core is really simple. Use a new source of data or a new perspective on how you gather insights and you’ll come up with new ideas and solutions to your business.

Now, indulge me for a second while I go on a little tangent. While looking for new data sources and philosophies beware of the very popular approach in our business to discredit everything that has been done before and the attempts to try to classify it as outdated and old school (or the popular “before the internet”). This phenomenon just drives me nuts some times. Sure all this social data for example is useful and provides new insights. Same with all the new mobile data we’re gathering and learning from. But an old school analysis of your boring sales data is as useful if not more as it grounds and helps organize all the other data. Generally it helps identify behaviors which is essential in our business. The trick I think is really to balance both and extract the most promising insights.

2. Ask different questions. Look at your current data from a new perspective and change the underlying assumptions. Looking at new data sources is smart, fun and often leads to new insights. But the reality is that often this approach is just not a viable option. Corporate politics and agendas and culture or simply the lack of resources just do not always make this an option. That doesn’t mean however that innovation and ground breaking thinking is not possible in those circumstances. In fact, even here the solution is fairly simple. In fact, all the data corporations collect is generally organized based on assumptions this corporation makes (or has made a long time ago) about its business. Assumptions on what drives the business and assumptions on how things work and link up (that’s basically what KPIs are). Assumptions on what the problems the company faces are. Assumptions on how the consumer segments and competitors are organized and behaving. Assumptions, which in the past have proven to build and grow the business (I have yet to meet an organization that uses data in a foolish or irrational way). So how do you come up with innovative solutions within an organization that is “stuck in its data set”? You help them re-evaluate and change the assumptions they are basing their business and marketing approach on and help them ask different questions. It’s a bit trickier and politically sensitive, but the reality is most data a company uses to make decisions can be re-organized around new assumptions and yield new and fresh insights.

3. Ask Matt: Another thing I’ve learned in my career is that most organizations have a lot of people with a lot of great ideas that would solve actual business problems, if only the organization would listen, prioritize and implement those ideas. The problems most organizations face is not that they don’t know what to do and/or lack ideas, it’s that they do not have a system in place to harvest the ideas of those within the organization that are in the front line, in the trenches with the customers or the scientists and engineers who have a solution no one has ever asked for. The other problem those organizations often have is to think the big ideas have to come from a specific department (whether it’s engineering, or marketing, of sales, or corporate strategy).

I have learned this many years ago when I witnessed a client of mine, a large global corporation, trying to come up with ideas on how to fight off an aggressive competitor. In all fairness, I was working in this group of people that thought it’s their responsibility to come up with a solution. But while we struggled to find a solution to that specific problem, a sales guy in a remote sales region had developed a simple but very effective tactic that was actually working to achieve what we were trying to do. The sales data in his region was off the charts while stagnating or down in the rest of the country. Well it took the organization over a year to acknowledge this solution and implement it across the sales region, but once it did national sales picked up again and the competitive threat was contained.

Indulge me in another little tangent. We’ve all sat in meetings where you have this one person that doesn’t say a word. Often it is a research guy or a scientist or a sales guy that just listens and absorbs what is going on and maybe doesn’t feel comfortable sharing his or her point of view. Usually those people know more about the business, front end or back end, than we do but just stay quiet or just do not believe that what they know is useful or valued. Well in my experience the single most useful thing you can do in this type of meetings, especially if there is a lot of conversation going on with little outcome, is to ask this one person “Matt, what do you think we should do”? (the choice of the name Matt is not a coincidence. Matt has saved my ass in many circumstances, probably without knowing it). You’d be surprised by what insights can come from this person and how asking this simple question to this one guy or gal can clarify the problem you’re trying to solve and point to a powerful and obvious solution. However, if the silent person in the room starts answering your question by saying “well I agree with everything that has been said before” you know that he or she is not Matt.

4. Pull your head out of your own ass. Looking at new data, asking different questions and asking Matt is fairly simple isn’t it? And yet often we don’t do those simple things. The main reason for that is that we are not wired to do so. Instead we are wired to build on our own experience and especially successes. I managed to grow a business by 20% with this specific approach and got promoted. Why should I change it now? I’ve managed to get people to talk about my product or campaign (created buzz or a viral effect) or won an award with it and got promoted. Why should I change my approach now? Or we let our egos get in our way, “i.e. I am smarter or cleverer than everyone else so it’s obvious that my solution will be better. And by the way who is this Matt guy I should listen to?

At a corporate level the problem is often that most organizations are wired to manage risk rather than success. Something has worked for the organization in the past so let’s preserve this way of doing things and replicate it as often as we can.

The only problem is that keeping our heads in our butts while making us maybe feel good about ourselves will only encourage us to replicate past patterns and successes rather than identify new solutions and ways forward. And the best way to avoid falling into this pattern is to follow steps 1 through 3 described above.

So this post became way longer than intended. What do you think? Is coming up with innovative and game changing ideas really as simple as:

1. Using different data sources?
2. Asking different questions?
3. Asking Matt?
4. Pulling your head out of your own ass?

Let me know what you think.

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