One tried-and-true innovation trick is to look for analogies. When you feel like you’re working on an intractable problem, find someone who has already solved the problem, but in a different context. Apply their learning to your situation, and see where it takes you.
Let’s practice by using this approach on the act of innovation itself. What do innovators do? At a basic level, they transform a blank piece of paper into a successful growth business. Can you think of anyone else who faces the same challenge? Architects would seem to fit the bill.
Think about how architects approach the blank-sheet-of-paper challenge. They don’t just start by building a business. Instead they sketch or create physical or computer models to bring their ideas to life. The design community calls this “rapid prototyping.”
Consider an example in Peter Sims’ excellent book Little Bets, describing how the famous architect Frank Gehry comes up with designs for new buildings. Sims writes that Gehry starts the design process by “literally cutting up, crumpling, and folding pieces of paper or corrugated cardboard with colleagues.”
“The initial prototype that emerges over an hour or so barely looks like a building,” Sims writes. “But it’s merely a starting point. They have begun and can work quickly and inexpensively to explore dozens of initial possibilities. Staring at it, Gehry smiles and says, ‘That is so stupid looking, it’s great.'”
Of course, truly great architects don’t just create compelling prototypes, or we’d consider Dr. Seuss one of the world’s great architects. The mark of a great architect is a building that looks great when it is actually built. Gehry wouldn’t be considered such a legend unless he designed notable buildings like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
The same is true of innovation. I’ve seen many a would-be innovator work endlessly to polish or perfect their business plan. But the plan isn’t the thing. The business is the thing. Clever plans that can’t be commercialized are nothing more than dead trees.
Finally, think about the different roles involved in creating a new building. The architect (and his or her team) develops the blueprint. The architect might create a scale model. But architects do not actually construct the building itself. Rather, a professional construction crew performs that task.
Similarly, there are different roles in the creation of a new business. Entrepreneurial maven Steve Blank describes how one mistake startups make is thinking they are just small businesses. They aren’t. Blank describes a startup as a “temporary organization searching for a repeatable and scalable business model.”
The people who can master the search phase are likely to be quite different from those who actually do the scaling.
The lesson? When you’re thinking about architecting innovation, remember the value of rapid prototypes, to focus on impact, and to match the skills of the team to the task.
Scott D. Anthony is managing director of Innosight Asia-Pacific.