If You Want to Invent a Better Shovel, Start Shoveling!


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This is the Idea (Ideate) stage, the fun part. We get out a bunch of post-it-notes, colored pencils and leave our creativity loose. Or do we…

If you want to invent a better shovel, start shoveling!

What sparks the flash of brilliance? How does groundbreaking innovation happen? Answering in his infectious, culturally omnivorous style, using his fluency in fields from neurobiology to popular culture, Steve Johnson provides the complete, exciting, and encouraging story of how we generate the ideas that push our careers, our lives, our society, and our culture forward.


One of my favorite books on Design is Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers (podcast with author below). The authors state:

Step Away from That Crystal Ball: All successful innovation begins with an accurate assessment of the present, of current reality. We save the crystal ball for later. Sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it? When we think of something new, we usually think of the future—not the present. Why not start there?

For a lot of reasons: First, we need to pay close attention to what is going on today to identify the real problem or opportunity that we want to tackle. A lot of managers throw away all kinds of opportunities for growth before they even get started by framing the problem to narrowly.

For years, product developers at P&G focused on improving the detergents that were used to clean floors. One day they realized (with the help of design thinking) that what their customers really wanted was cleaner floors, and that could be achieved through means other than better detergents—such as a better mop. That insight produced a runaway bestseller in the form of the Swiffer, a growth initiative that revolved around a product invented in the middle ages (if not before). Fruitful searches go back to the basics: What is the job to be done?

A funny thing often happens as we pay closer attention to what customers are up to—we find that the clues to the new future lie in dissatisfactions with the present. And not just when the innovation you are looking for is incremental. Ultimately, growth is always about solving customers’ problems.

Having synthesized the data and identified emerging patterns, ideas begin to pop into our heads on their own volition. We start to consider new possibilities, trends, and uncertainties. Even without consciously trying, we are beginning to develop hypotheses about what a desirable future might look like. And so it is time to move from the data-based exploratory

To generate truly creative ideas, it is crucial to start with possibilities. Often in business, in our attempts to be “practical,” we start with constraints. This is deadly to breakthrough thinking. If we start by accepting all the things that don’t allow us to do something better, our designs for tomorrow will inevitably look a lot like those for today.

A few outtakes from the book:

  • A funny thing often happens as we pay close attention to what customers are up to – we find the clues to the new future in dissatisfactions with the present.
  • Brainstorming is 90% planning, 10% execution
  • The goal isn’t to nail it; the goal is to identify new hypothesis that may help you reinvent the process.
  • “Creating new concepts de[pends a lot more on discipline than on creativity. You take the ten most creative people you can find anywhere. Give me a squad of ten marines and right protocols and I promise we’ll out-innovate you.” – Larry Keeley of Doblin
  • Design Thinking begins with Design Doing

So yes we can use the tools to create ideas such as Brainstorming, Brain Drizzle, Brain Drought and so many others but the best one in my humble opinion is to create better stories. Several ideas from the book, Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design:

Hints for a good story:

  • Focus on activity, describing actions and behavior, set in a specific context.
  • Include a description of the motivation/need that trigger action.
  • Use a persona to set them in context.

From various collections of story structures, the authors selected a few recognizable story structures that are useful in telling stories in user experience design. They are only offered as starting points.

  • Prescriptive: Structural templates that allow you to fill in the blank
  • Hero: Using Joseph Campbell-inspired hero’s journey elements
  • Familiar to foreign: Using a different journey of sorts that begins with the comfortable and then stretches into the less familiar
  • Framed: Stories that appear to begin and end the same way
  • Layered: Using layered images to build a story experience
  • Contextual interludes: Using diversions of physical or emotional details to add an extra dimension to a story

If you want to invent a better shovel, start shoveling!

When we ideate, we want to explore a wide solution space. We need to look at both quantity and a variety of ideas. The best way I have found to start is to take the user stories created and categorize them, combine them, separate them, break them down but most of all experience them. As I said before the way to invent a better shovel, it to put one in your hands and start shoveling. But move around with it. Try it in different materials, in different ways and with different people. You may surprise yourself. The secret is to take everything that you have learned so far, documented in user stories and re-frame the stories. We looked at how customers currently frame their problems, their mental models and constraints. Now we need to use this information to formulate a hypotheses about new possibilities. The ideas are in the stories.

Take the User Stories you created in the previous exercise and start creating more. Write them from different perspectives, contexts and structures. Don’t forget to view these stories from a Service Dominant Logic thinking perspective. You may like to create user stories that have an outlook based on the three values of functional, social and emotional. An old product development practice that is still pinned up on my wall is SCAMPER:

What can you Substitute?
What can you Combine?
What can you Adapt?
What can you Modify or Magnify?
Can you Put to other uses?
What can you Eliminate or reduce?
What can you Reverse/Rearrange?

I always added one more…Leave it sit for a day. Sleeping on it, I believe has value! Using a concept like SCAMPER or re-framing your story in a different context or a different viewpoint can create a flood of ideas to consider. Keep writing user stories. Shyness is not a virtue at the moment. It would not be out of line to have a hundred. Because soon we are going to start eliminating a few of them. There are a many tools we can use to start eliminating ideas with, to name a few: SWOT, Pugh Matrix, Voice of Customer, Voice of Market, Kano Model and different Decision Matrices. I am going to spend more time on these later but all them basically segment your list by some priority that you have created; sometimes and sometimes not with data. Maybe the most important consideration is when you consider the items that your organization values the most to make sure your customers value them also. It is a hard road to go if you sell your organization on the values that identify your organization and then turn around and find a customer base that disregards them.

I want to look at 2 tools rather briefly:

1. SWOT Analysis: Briefly from Wikipedia:

SWOT Analysis is a planning method used to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses/Limitations, Opportunities, and Threats involved in a project or in a business venture. It involves specifying the objective of the business venture or project and identifying the internal and external factors that are favorable and unfavorable to achieve that objective.

Setting the objective should be done after the SWOT analysis has been performed. This would allow achievable goals or objectives to be set for the organization.

  • Strengths: characteristics of the business, or project team that give it an advantage over others
  • Weaknesses (or Limitations): are characteristics that place the team at a disadvantage relative to others
  • Opportunities: external chances to improve performance (e.g. make greater profits) in the environment
  • Threats: external elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business or project

2. SOAR Analysis:

In the Appreciative Inquiry field, there has been a movement to use a SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) analysis in lieu of SWOT. SOAR is a great method to use for expanding on the positive areas of an organization. It normally is much easier to gain buy-in from stakeholders with this approach versus others.

In the book The Thin Book of SOAR; Building Strengths-Based Strategy, the authors state:

People tend to look for problems and focus on weaknesses and threats before searching for possibilities. For example, one participant of a SWOT process described this tendency as follows: “Having used SWOT analysis for the previous fifteen years, I had experienced that it could be draining as people often got stuck in the weaknesses and threats conversations. The analysis became a descending spiral of energy.” Or, as another described his experience of a planning process deeply rooted in a SWOT analysis, “[the SWOT approach] gave us a plan, but took our spirit. From our experience, drained energy and loss of spirit can negatively impact momentum and achieving results.

In SOAR, we focus on our strengths and opportunities, so that we can align and expand them until they lessen or manage our weaknesses and threats. Weaknesses and threats are not ignored. They are refrained and given the appropriate focus within the Opportunities and Results conversation. Ultimately, it becomes a question of balance. Why not spend as much time or more on what you do well and how7 you can do more of that? What gives you more energy to take action? What gives you confidence to set a stretch goal?

The SOAR framework is the beginning step in the Defining stage and is a natural lead in to the others.

  • Strengths: Internal to organization; What is our core
  • Opportunities: External to organization; What might be
  • Aspirations: Internal to organization; What should be
  • Results : External to organization; What will be

How many resources do you have? Should you be using them on your weaknesses or your strength? In a previous lesson I discussed not looking for areas of deficiencies and improvement but to expand on the areas we do well in. You cannot be everything to everyone and so you have to limit your resources. So why not use them on what you do well?

When I engage with a customer, I find the initial sequence of steps used to create a Lean Marketing System must ensure we carefully think through what outcomes we want to create, what supports and barriers we need to plan for, and who we have to involve within your organization to guarantee success. Our starting point looks like this:

  1. (Definition) What are you presently doing and how do your clients and organization feel about them?
  2. (Discovery) What is your present value proposition for retaining customers? What is your present value proposition for acquiring customers?
  3. (Dream)What are your targets? How will we measure success?
  4. (Design) Do you understand your customer’s decision making process? For each product/market segment?
  5. (Destiny) What’s your investment strategy – not only in media, but in time and events?

The first steps of any Lean process is identify value and create a current state. When working on the service, why should we identify the process through Non-Value Activities defined as waste (Weaknesses and Threats) versus the Value Added activities of SOAR? A consideration for you to ponder.

As I had mentioned before, next week is where we will go through the process of eliminating ideas in more detail but for categorize your list, combining, removing the foolish, and make a wall chart with the ideas in the three columns of pre-purchase, purchase and post-purchase. Separate the ideas placing them in different swim lanes. If a user story applies to another adjacent story, pick the best one it goes with or make a copy aligning the user stories from left to right. You may have 10, 20 or more swimlanes. After doing this, pick seven swim lanes. And for now, pick three from that list. From these three, we will discuss prototyping as part of the implementation stage, tomorrow.

Recommended Reading/Listening

A Good Architect is an enabling Orchestra Leader



Using Design Thinking for Growth



The Lean Agile Train Software Transcription




Job-Centric Innovation is Rethinking Customer Needs



Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Dager
Business901 is a firm specializing in bringing the continuous improvement process to the sales and marketing arena. He has authored the books the Lean Marketing House, Marketing with A3 and Marketing with PDCA. The Business901 Blog and Podcast includes many leading edge thinkers and has been featured numerous times for its contributions to the Bloomberg's Business Week Exchange.


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