How To Innovate From Existing Ideas

As an experience design agency, we’re typically hired to explore what really matters most to ‘customers’ – patients, shoppers, travellers, guests, whoever - and identify ways to improve their experience.Whilst it’s understandable that high hopes are placed on finding something completely new from customer research, the reality can be less romantic. Nevertheless, we frequently find that, by combining fresh insight with existing initiatives, updated versions of earlier ideas can offer incremental value, both to the business and its customers.

So – with that in mind, we detailing here our Top 4 tips for innovating from existing ideas. These can be readily used in brainstorming sessions, ideally with some form of external facilitator to encourage an environment open to invention (or re-invention, whichever serves better).

  1. Focus on the Gap, not the idea – existing ideas that weren’t implemented or didn’t succeed doesn’t necessarily make them permanently flawed. Some could have been ahead of their time, whilst others may have more value in a changed economic or cultural environment. Breathe fresh life into these by concentrating on the customer gap as it exists today. By this we mean “what does the customer value highly, but we under-deliver on?” Try re-thinking the context in which rejected ideas were conceived. A good example is how smartphones are making downtime more useful for people ‘on-the-move’ – if your customer gap was about lack of convenience or easy access, what would that old idea look like now if it was an app?
  2. The Element of Surprise – we’ve found many existing initiatives in firms that failed to get funding or backing because they couldn’t be rolled out at scale – in other words, the pilot scheme looked good, but the numbers didn’t add up. One imaginative way to overcome this is to make the idea intermittent, unannounced, simply a nice surprise. Hyatt Hotels found that a great way to delight its Gold Passport members was to randomly surprise them, perhaps by picking up their bar tab, or treating their family to breakfast. The initiative became much cheaper to run as a ‘random act of kindness’, and guests even valued it more because it was unexpected. What could this kind of thinking do to those great ideas that just don’t quite make the business case?
  3. Does your idea have a home to go to? – The practicality of getting things done in an organisation means that having a great idea that serves the firm and the customer is no guarantee of implementation. Most of all, an initiative needs a sponsor, somewhere or someone in the business who wants to own it. Aligning the initiative with the objectives and goals of a department can often unlock the path to giving the idea a home and subsequently some traction. The tried and tested path for achieving this is getting the buy-in process right internally. Every business is different here, but read this blog for a great case study from global banking provider Macquarie
  4. Positive Deviance or “building on what we know works” – even when an idea becomes proven to work, it can be hard to get it accepted in other parts of the business. In Atul Gawande’s inspiring book “Better – a Surgeon’s notes on performance”, he describes how frustrating it was that the focus of infection control in the operating theatre was not shared by the rest of the hospital. His case study of a ward in Pittsburgh Veterans Hospital showed how the age-old idea of washing your hands could be reinvented. Instead of asking the question “Why don’t you wash your hands?”, to ward staff, they explored the issue “Why can’t you?” By far the most common answer was….time.

So a team set about looking for things that could save staff time and that were linked to carrying of infection. Examples included keeping supplies of gauze, tape and gloves at every bedside, so that entering/exiting the ward is reduced, and assigning a stethoscope to each patients’ room, rather than each doctor (so reducing the risk of germ transference). Dozens of small, simple changes had the impact of reducing MRSA infection on the ward by 90 per cent. By building on capabilities that the hospital already had, rather than telling staff how they had to change, the central idea became something to contribute to, and re-interpret. Many companies already have these proven core ideas already, built into their brand values, or their original proposition. How can positive deviance refresh its central value?