Well, 2020 has been quite a year. Market dynamics are going through abrupt jolts. Experimental technologies have suddenly found practical application. Collective groups of people have sparked social movements that are upending customer expectations. Pivoting is the method of the moment. For many, it is the only way to stay relevant through these seismic shifts.
But shape shifting isn’t easy for corporations. Businesses are not objective realities; they are abstract collaborative efforts. A business is constructed by the collective imagination of its workforce as they try to understand what the company is and wants to be, interpret what’s expected of them, and attempt to contribute to that whole. Each business’ sense-of-self is held by many individuals on behalf of the business.
Generating new ideas and directions requires that employees—first the project team, and eventually a significant portion of the company—imagine what a business could become. Sometimes, people’s inability to stretch their concept of the organization holds them back from conceiving and championing transformative innovations for it. Added together, the limit of their collective imagination becomes the blocker of change. We’ve seen this happen a number of times in our work.
Treating Customers Like Mirrors
Listening to customers is a solid method for looking beyond your own horizons. Executed improperly, however, it merely strengthens your own way of seeing things.
Despite its goals of customer-centricity, a project helping a large company engage a diminishing market segment got tangled up in collective-imagination issues. Speaking with customers was woven across our teams’ work; we had a deep ethnographic study, weekly interviews, resonance tests, and even invited customers to the steering committee to counterbalance the executives.
During a mid-term workshop, we put executive stakeholders face-to-face with customers. Though our aim was to explore new value propositions, executives only asked questions about contracts, pricing, brand perception, and billing, trying to validate features that were already in the pipeline. Customer quotes and insights, in the hands of tenured executives, were reduced to cursory answers. “Customers ask for convenience, so we’ll send the bill by email.”
After spending significant portions of their careers thinking about pricing, service offerings, billing, repair and support procedures, executives found little capacity to think of anything else. Everything was filtered through their existing concept of the business, leaving no space for transformation.
Making Differentiation a Limitation
Differentiation sets businesses apart from their competition, but well-guarded differentiators can also become boundaries that lock the team from exploring the fertile soil beyond. Working with a traditional financial advisor, our team quickly found that personal, mostly in-person service is the non-negotiable, as it differentiates wealth management from consumer banking.
Our clients held tightly to the idea of marble-clad meeting rooms, one-to-one relationships, and smartly dressed advisors.
We took the usual customer-centric approach. We learned that customers want advisors who were relatable, not scripted. They wanted to bounce ideas around with an advisory team via text messaging. And they wanted to keep an eye on, and make changes to, their portfolio through their phone.
Despite customers’ requests, when we offered more casual solutions that leveraged digital channels to create self-service components, our clients dismissed them as pedestrian. Efforts to add more digital communication were countered with the concern that it would hinder the customer–advisor bond. Rather than exploring the potential of digital chat, the client team quickly assumed the bank would never allow it and brushed the concept off altogether.
Just a few years later, high-touch financial advisors are scrambling to create relevant digital service offerings, while mass-market digital (even robotic) advisory and investment platforms chip away at their base.
Forcing the New to Sell the Old
Working with a third client, our team again encountered the limits of the collective imagination. The team generated an offering that could be viable on its own, and the stakeholders turned it into a marketing tool for the old.
Our work was to build a digital platform that could move the company up the value chain, shaping customer experiences directly, instead of providing the component-level parts. Our solution was designed to stand apart from the old business, leveraging the brand and knowledge, but generating a new independent revenue stream.
Despite the remit for reinvention, our clients’ instincts ceaselessly tugged them back toward the core offering. By the time our presentation and visuals were complete, the platform looked like a product catalogue of all the gadgets and components from the old business.
Creating something new would have required bold belief that it could trot on its own two feet, and even one day, surpass the old business in scale. Without full confidence, the team took that safer path of making the new concept a subservient option for the old way of working.
Explore Broader Horizons
Innovation can only go as far as an employee’s concept of the business does. We all develop entrenched ways of thinking, that’s how we learn. But it holds back our efforts to innovate. How can you stretch out your own perspective to find new directions for your company? If these stories feel familiar, here’s some ideas of how to proceed.
Create New Synapses
Simply by nature of how our brain works, we are more likely to think old rather than new things. Thoughts travel along synapses, and synapses become stronger with every use. They are more likely to be used the stronger they become. Thinking differently takes effort. Our innovation teams have spent years honing their ability to reimagine the world. Lean into the effort to consciously build new synapses. Visit a museum. Read a scientific paper on neuroscience. Fill a whole cart with groceries for $10. Go skateboarding. Take a different path home. Exploring novel thoughts of any kind will give us new synapses to use as we reimagine the companies for whom we work.
Listen to Customers Openly
Avoid bringing your own perspectives into the conversation with customers. Before the discussion, try tuning your mind with an economics exercise estimating what value your offering has in comparison to all the different things they care about in their lives (it’s probably quite small). Don’t jump into the details of your own offering too quickly. Explore tangential topics and categories, make sure you ask good questions about the context in which your offering lives, and let the theme you want to discuss emerge on its own. So, if you’re exploring new propositions for a salt company, you’ll discuss the role food plays in their lives, what cooking means to them, table manners, health, flavor, seasoning, and learn how salt fits into the whole picture, and exploring new directions that salt could branch into.
Become Someone Else
People that get stuck in their limited concept of the business can quickly jump into new ways of thinking by imagining that someone else will be responsible for the solution. How would Disney tackle the challenge? What approach would Lockheed Martin take? What ideas would the Sultan of Brunei have? An Argentinian Gaucho? An anaesthesiologist? A parent? A deep-sea diver? Thinking from these different angles stops you from filtering ideas from your own limited perspective and instigates an active, visionary dialogue about what your company could be.
Reframe the Challenge by Writing it Down
Unwittingly, teams set up innovation challenges that perpetuate significant parts of the status quo, limiting the realm of possibility. Working from this grounding means you will only be able to envision and qualify solutions that are direct evolutions of the current offering. Help your team envision what is possible by posing an expansive question to kick the project off. Working with a brick company, we might ask what building blocks homes will be made of in the future, rather than how to make bricks easier to lay. Set bold ambitions and frame the challenge in a way that makes space for new lines of inquiry. Put your intention into deliberately selected words that the team can revisit for guidance and direction as they go on their path of transformation.
Tie the New Initiative Back to the Whole
Employees, leadership, and customers will only buy into innovations that are part of the logical trajectory of the business. A national nail salon chain would have a hard time convincing people (internally and externally) of their SaaS fitness-and-wellness booking platform. Be explicit about bridging the gap between the old business and the new. Anchor the story in the business’ history, then point the business’ trajectory into the future. For the nail salon, remind stakeholders how solid booking procedures help with customer retention and loyalty, ultimately enabling the business to scale. Then point the trajectory forward, explaining a design to shift focus away from asset-intensive salons, instead turning their competitive advantage—booking—into their product.
Socialize, Socialize, Socialize
Remember, a company’s self-concept belongs to all the people inside the business, from marketing to controlling to frontline staff. Changing the narrative to make space for innovation requires changing each individual person’s mind. Everyone has good reason to believe the company is what it is, all the evidence they have seen points to that conclusion. They need to see new evidence, over and over again, to be able to welcome a new concept of who the business is.