Innovation: An Outside-In Approach

Every organization wants to be thought of as “innovative” and although cliché, there is something said about thinking outside of the box to help you get there. However, simply asking your employees to think outside of the box at your next internal planning session or brainstorm meeting may not be enough to get to those game-changing ideas. To get unique solutions, you need to look at things in new light. The following seven strategies are tactics that will help you take an outside-in approach to innovation, to help you come up with unexpected, richer solutions.

Kill your own company.

To get to the most radical ideas, sometimes you have to put yourself in the mindset of competitors. Using the exercise Kill the Company, ask your staff: What would competitors need to do today to put us out of business? After brainstorming, work as a team to identify the biggest threats and prioritize change initiatives. This tool will not only bring your vulnerabilities to light, it promotes a proactive approach to staying competitive in the industry.

To get to the most radical ideas, sometimes you have to put yourself in the mindset of competitors.

Include ‘haters’ of your product in your brainstorms.

Does your organization ask for customers’ feedback about what it was like to do business with you? What about asking non-customers why they don’t do business with you? Intentionally including people who dislike your product or services in a focus group can lead to more provocative conversations. Better yet, have naysayers sit in on internal planning meetings to share their thoughts on how product enhancements could affect their perception of your company.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

One of the first steps to innovation is realizing you could be doing things better. You aren’t perfect, your company isn’t perfect, and neither are your products. When you take this to heart, gaining an outside-in perspective that might identify shortcomings can be a lighthearted conversation, rather than a serious one. One extreme example of this is Comedy Central’s famous annual Roasts, where a celebrity who appreciates a good joke gets torn to shreds with hilarious insults doled out by a live audience. While these celebrities’ goal may not be to gain constructive criticism to improve, they realize they aren’t perfect and can find amusement in hearing other people poke fun at their quirks.

When you take this practice and transition it to your own company’s products, it works surprisingly well at uncovering an outside-in perspective. Do you sell something that’s desperately in need of a modern makeover? Roast it. Do you have a product that doesn’t work as well as it should? Roast it. The goal of this exercise is to see your products objectively like your customers do; flaws and all. Use customer service emails as fodder to get you started. This is an opportunity for your staff to say what everyone in the room and all of your customers have probably already been thinking. You’ll get a good laugh, but more importantly, identify opportunities for innovation.

Go from pain to gain.

Think about your customers’ pain points when it comes to working with your organization and its products or services. Once you identify the low points, you can start brainstorming on how to make them selling points and key differentiators in the market. For example, if customers are frustrated with the wait time for resolving complaints, make that your number one priority for change. Empower less-tenured staff to make decisions that resolve customers’ issues immediately, rather than submitting requests to higher-ups.

Figure out what your customers do all day.

Think you know your target market? Not just their demographic, but what their life is actually like. What do they think about in the morning when they wake up? What are their high and low points throughout the day? What really makes them tick? Try giving your customers a diary for them to record what a day in their life is like.This will help you understand unmet needs.

What industries could provide radical change ideas for your company?

Copy good ideas from different industries.

Sometimes business people think their company has unique circumstances that prohibit the emulation of problem-solving strategies that have proven successful in other industries. This could not be further from the truth. Many times, the best ideas are already out there; all you have to do is identify the ones that would work for your situation. Henry Ford got the idea for assembly line production for manufacturing cars from visiting slaughter houses that used a similar technique. Cattle and cars don’t seem to have much in common from the surface, but the strategy for efficiently delivering a final product to consumers is a great fit for both industries. What industries could provide radical change ideas for your company?

Evolve beyond obvious partnerships.

A quick win for improving innovation is to partner with other organizations that could add value to your business. The key for promoting change is to get creative in how you think about the types of partnerships that could be beneficial. We recommend using a tool called Within, Adjacent, and Beyond. This exercise guides teams through the process of identifying new opportunities for win-win business relationships that previously weren’t on their radar.

To getoutside of the box ideas, you need to look at things in new light. Use these tactics to force yourself to think in someone else’s shoes – your competitors, customers, other industries – to arrive at ideas you may not have thought of before. By regularly trying these exercises and ideas, you will unlock a different way of thinking in your organization and uncover new solutions to stay ahead.

By Lisa Bodell

About the Author

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm that helps businesses embrace change and become world-class innovators. She has devised training programs for hundreds of innovators at leading companies such as 3M, GE, and Johnson & Johnson.
She is also the author of provocative culture change book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution.

Photo: drawing idea pencil and light bulb concept from shutterstock.com

  • Say Keng Lee

    What about asking disgruntled employees and those who had left? Also, rogue customers who badmouth you or who give you hell most of the time?

  • Jorge A Cabrera

    Very interesting and challenging ! Quite true.

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