Developing New Eyes: Discovering Opportunities in a Well-Trodden Domain

We were literally out of ideas. Or good ideas anyway. Over the last five years, we had tried just about every ideation technique in the book and had considered hundreds of concepts. We had plenty of incremental ideas, but still nowhere near generating anything of strategic importance. We were wondering what to do next.  But before I get ahead of myself, let me give you a little background.

This tale represents a composite account of several real project experiences Inovo has had over the past three years. This tale is told in the first person to share these experiences as our clients might have described them. Their identities are not revealed for reasons of confidentiality. If you see yourself in this situation, then know that you’re not alone.

We’re a 70-year-old materials company selling a product that has been around for 30 years and used in thousands of applications. While there are subtle differences between our product and that of our competitors, it is essentially a commodity.  This material, while versatile, could be duplicated at lower cost in specific applications with cheaper materials. We needed big, strategic and differentiated opportunities – the type that drive a whole new growth curve for years to come. We had exhausted our internal capability and found nothing but small ideas, or wild and crazy ideas. We knew that these ideas were not going to achieve the breakthrough opportunities we were looking for.We were literally out of ideas. Or good ideas anyway. Over the last five years, we had tried just about every ideation technique in the book and had considered hundreds of concepts. We had plenty of incremental ideas, but still nowhere near generating anything of strategic importance. We were wondering what to do next.  But before I get ahead of myself, let me give you a little background.

Given this situation, how could we possibly discover something new and compelling? Part of the answer had to be in the approach. We couldn’t rely on the same old brainstorming, scouting or voice-of-the-customer methods. These all felt like garden tools and we needed a front-end loader (so to speak) – a new type of discovery process. So, with fingers crossed, we turned to the outside for help.

A New Way to Discover Opportunities

We went on the conference circuit looking for novel approaches to opportunity discovery. We bumped into Inovo at one of those “fish in a barrel” cocktail receptions in which we get to consume free drinks and appetizers in exchange for making small talk, and shop talk, with the sponsors. We liked what we heard and the next thing you know we had embarked on a six-month journey.

The first two months were spent finding unique domains – fruitful hunting grounds for opportunities. The next four months were spent exploring these domains in great depth. Inovo introduced us to the concept of iterative deepening. We generated new opportunity “hypotheses” every week for several months and then focused larger amounts of time on an ever-narrowing set of options. This sounds like a traditional funnel but that fails to convey the iterative and unpredictable nature of the process. It’s better to imagine a process of evolution – the best opportunities survive and thrive by combining, splitting and mutating in the face of a rigorous selection process that attempts to mimic their ultimate market habitat.

Throughout the process there was a strong emphasis on outreach and engagement with the external ecosystem: the people whose insight could inspire new ideas and help vet the concepts we were creating. There was also a heavy focus on rigorous and transparent decision-making using a combination of subjective voting tools and analytical assessment tools. There were also tools to shift the frame from the world of today to the future world in which these strategic opportunities would need to compete.

Surprises

The Inovo approach gave us the compelling opportunities we were hoping for. But beyond that, there were some additional outcomes that we were not expecting. First, through both the domaining and discovery phases, we established a boundary of what’s possible well beyond where it was when we started. This was surprising.

Secondly, several of the best opportunities had previously been considered in other ideation efforts but not pursued. Iterative Deepening gave these old opportunities a new twist, perhaps a new technology component or a new business model or just the right type of exposure, and surprising new life.

Finally, the level of organizational support for the final winning opportunities was surprisingly high. At this stage, we would normally have an organizational battle to get the key influencers and decision-makers on board. Now, this audience has already heard the debate, influenced the outcome and seen where their beliefs were right or wrong. They know in their hearts that these are the best of the best opportunities to be found.

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