When people talk about exploring white space in innovation, they are often referring to the need to explore under-served markets or businesses that are outside their core. White space is where unmet and unarticulated needs are uncovered to create innovation opportunities. It is where products and services don’t exist based on the present understanding of values, definition of business or even existing competencies.
White space has been used to good effect in identifying opportunities for companies thinking of exiting existing business (Intel exited the Dram business or IBM exiting the PC business) and companies looking high growth opportunities or (Research In Motion getting into the tablet business) companies wanting to explore strategic diversification (Virgin extending the brand into insurance and banking).
White space is a process and tool that allows us to look at the landscape up and down the value chain with a new lens. It can help uncover opportunities that are not obvious ; it can identify new openings untouched by competitors, or it can be considered part of what was traditionally deemed a remote, different industry or outside the boundaries of the firm.
White space is also an important outcome of customer inquires and the discovery process, that leads to new profit growth opportunities by defining potential gaps in existing markets. The process can be used to identify entirely new markets or it can be used to map incremental innovation in products or services. It can also be a new source of customer value that can be translated to economic value.
Like any blank canvas white space can provoke fear and hesitation. Many companies are reluctant to enter any white space because of the unknowns. White space can cannibalize existing products or services, it can require extensive system design and support, and in some cases it can require very different business models.
As a result, this often leads to people not wanting to take any risks and they instinctively retreat to their core and close adjacencies. There are dilemmas facing most companies and the process of stepping back to look at the white space around us often brings us face to face with those dilemmas.
The most significant dilemma goes to the heart of the company’s mission and its struggle with the future, that is the art of deciding what’s the core to the business. Deciding what to consider adjacencies, however, is another art. Do we look at the core from competencies, brand, or assets? How do we decide, in this fast changing world, what are attainable adjacencies?
How do we use white space mapping? The first step in the white space mapping process is to determine if you will approach it from an internal or external or future perspective. These are the three different lenses to white space mapping:
The externally-focused perspective to white space mapping begins with mapping the market, products, or services in your markets and determining whether these are served, under-served or un-served. The goal is to find gaps in existing markets, products, or service lines that represent opportunities for your business. Some of these gaps may be opportunities with little or no competition, some may identify non-consumers, and others may uncover an entirely new market space that has the potential to transform your industry.
The tools of external market analysis are fairly well known. However in white space mapping the objective is to approach the unknown. You could almost say the definition of the ‘white space’ is that there are few footprints in the sand.
An example would be when Sony examines the digital camera market, they will map out the competitive spectrum from amateurs to prosumers to real professionals and determine what gaps are emerging and where do they find non-consumers where they can open up a completely new category. The launching of the NEX-7 is a good example, an innovative new non-mirror interchangeable lens digital camera designed to compete with other manufacturers’ top-level interchangeable lenses DC products but at a moderate price range. It was an instant hit.
The internally focused white space mapping process is an inward looking tool used to map your company’s abilities and address new opportunities or threats from current competitors. This process is used to determine how efficiently and effectively you can react to opportunities and threats from process, systems and structural perspectives.
In this scenario, white space mapping becomes an instrument to identify barriers to your company that can inhibit it from pursuing new products, new markets, or to counter a competitive response to your moves.
An example would be when Canon needed to look at the evolving competing space and first mapped out their core capabilities to see where they have most advanced technologies, patents and market access. Based on these assets they will map the complete white space based on the recombination of these applications in specific market contexts.
The future focused white space mapping process will put an emphasis on applied strategic foresights. Usually there is a time horizon no less than 5 years and involving input from strategic foresight exercises.
The foresight inputs include a range of strategic options generated from the same sense of white space and possibility that an externally focused mapping exercise generates. Some of these options might be somewhat difficult for some analytical and “objective’’ people to appreciate, or even recognize. They are liberated from core assumptions and that makes them threatening.
However, this is undoubtedly the more important form of output because of the way it alters/ influences the very mechanism of strategy development itself, namely the perceptions of the mind(s) involved in strategizing.
The white space narratives often manifest themselves in visual maps, multi-media presentations, narratives and even experiential events that communicate future context. An example is when LG mobile wanted to explore the trends of mobile and devices for the future, they started with creating personas of future customers and based on those personas developed a series of strategic themes. These themes will inform white space opportunity mapping and facilitate identification of hot spots.
White space mapping usually consists of a number of workshops. When our team at Idea Couture leads white space exercises we help by creating a map of all these interacting elements and correlate these with customer needs and technology trends.
This is a sense-making process, one that takes place in a new context, beyond traditional assumptions. We will create different perceptual mappings of what we call a ’3-D opportunity space’ that drives further discussions about how these interacting elements will shape the industry structure or transfer power up and down the value chain or sideways. At this stage, the team will test out various scenarios and create customer scenarios that make the opportunity tangible.
As markets mature, competition intensifies; new technologies are invented, and new consumer behaviors constantly emerge. Organizations need to actively look for new sources of differentiation; white space mapping is becoming an important strategic exercise for organizational learning and strategic planning. For a company to remain relevant over the long term, it must respond to these shifting conditions intelligently and white space mapping needs to be part of its strategic planning efforts.
There is generally a lack of rigor when applying this toolkit due to its fuzzy nature. It is not necessary to be ill disciplined and imaginative. What companies really need is a structure to bring the intuitive aspects of design thinking into action.
White space thinking provides a framework that ensures, first that all the major influences on markets and strategy are analyzed and secondly that we move beyond assumptions to new scenarios based on analyzing those elements imaginatively. Perhaps the most important part of this is we make two things explicit. The first is the fear and hesitation around white spaces. By bringing this in the open we are explicit also about our assumptions. The second is the intuitive. By combining external internal and future white space analysis we give a structure for strategic intuition and instinct to work within.