The patterning nature of the human brain seeks certainty and is therefore, hardwired to solve problems. As soon as you are confronted with a difficulty, the first response is to blurt out suggestions that you think can alleviate the problem. It is interesting to note that this is particularly true of the male brain, the mere hint of a problem starts the adrenaline running. The female psyche on the other hand, is much more comfortable with discussing the problem in greater detail and not immediately jumping the gun to solving it. Call it evolution or a difference in the s circuitry, the brain’s dissimilar approaches become quite apparent during brainstorming sessions.
Think back about the last problem you solved. Most likely, your reaction was the most obvious one. The dilemma is that the most obvious reaction is also the most common and the least innovative, giving you absolutely no edge over anyone else. If you can point out the obvious, so can someone else. Where is the competitive edge in such a situation? This has been identified as the most serious drawback of creative thinking techniques such as brainstorming. The initial ideas seem to fit the patterns in the brain better as they are the most understandable ones.
If the innovator is to create innovative solutions and profit from them, he has to break the pattern. He has to understand that he cannot think like an ordinary entrepreneur and go for the most apparent answer. He has to train his brain to reject his initial ideas and to continue thinking of alternatives, especially when his brain revolts and tells him otherwise. Innovators use a convenient constructive thinking tool to do exactly this – the Action Alternative (AA) tool. The objective of the AA tool is to junk the obvious and dig deeper for a more innovative and creative answer.
The AA couldn’t be simpler to use. State the problem that needs to be resolved correctly and accurately and list between six to ten obvious answers that come to mind. Then, take these answers and scrap them. Yes, that is right – throw away what seems to make most sense. Now, begin thinking of a fresh list of solutions that have nothing in common with the ideas on the first list. Refuse to let your brain hijack the exercise by telling you that there are just no other answers. If you have the stamina to keep this up, your brain will be forced to come up with Action Alternatives that are creative, innovative and unique. Let’s look at two examples of companies that have used the AA tool effectively.
An alcohol producer in the Unites States was losing sales as it’s cheap liquor had a distinct taste that was unappealing. The company used the AA to list out the most obvious solutions and then scrapped the entire list. The most obvious solution was to process the alcohol further by increasing the level of filtration. This however, would inevitable result in a higher cost, making the product out of reach of a key market segment. Further thinking led to a new product that the consumer could purchase to solve the problem himself – a personal alcohol filtration system. This product sells for less than US$30 (www.garykangaroo.com) and allows the user to filter cheap liquor at home, removing the bad taste and impurities that cause a hangover the next day.
Oliso, an American white good company, examined feedback from homemakers saying that irons regularly ruin clothes due to long (accidental) contact with the fabric. It is common for irons to be left on a garment while the home-maker or the maid rushes to pick up a child who has fallen down or to the stove that is burning the dinner. The company conducted numerous brainstorming sessions but could not come up with any truly innovative ideas.
It then decided to use the AA tool. The most obvious solutions were listed and then junked – including the idea to coat the surface of the iron with a non-stick substance that could not burn the clothes. Further constructive thinking led to a breakthrough product – an iron that does not rest on the garment but has to be pressed down during ironing. In it’s original state, the iron hovers about an 2 inches above the garment. When released, it springs upwards and does not rest on the garment being ironed. AA forced Oliso (www.oliso.com) to come up with an inexpensive and effective solution that it has now protected by patents.
AA works by getting to brain to dig deeper into the problem and not settle at what appears to be the most apparent solution. Innovation is about originality, the innovator seeks to find original solutions that can afford him a competitive edge. No competitive advantage is sustainable forever and therefore, the innovator constantly engages critical and constructive thinking tools to create a better mousetrap.
Amongst the various definitions of innovation, the one that is most applicable to the innovator is ‘innovation is the ability to make money from creativity’. It is imperative therefore, that the innovator does not settle for the same solution that rings true in other minds too – he has to express creativity in the solution he utilises. Innovation based on creativity and originality is the key to financial success. Use the AA tool diligently and your mind will soon give up the ghost on the most apparent and easy solutions.
In this Age of Commodities, Return on Investment (ROI) is getting difficult as the barriers to information, knowledge, education, skills and expertise are crumbling. An individual, working out of his bedroom with a PC and a broadband connection, is able to create products and services that have global appeal. Businesses today have to focus on the ability to innovate, for this is the one skill that is still difficult to replicate. The implication on the innovator is that in his world, ROI should no longer mean ‘Return On Investment’. In the innovator’s world, ROI should stand for ‘Return On Innovation’.
Source: Dr. Kamal Jit Singh is the regional director of British Telecom’s Asian Research Centre and specialises in using innovation as a strategy for increasing competitiveness. He also teaches strategic management to an MBA class in Singapore. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org