For real innovation, take your second best idea

Recently I was speaking to a friend about choosing business ideas for innovation. He described an exercise in which three teams in the same organisation were tasked with brainstorming and then selecting an innovative idea to pursue. Each team was unaware that the others were working on the same task until they came to present their selected idea, which they were asked to do in front of the other teams. Invariably, said my friend, they all presented the same idea. They are all trying to innovate, yet they all did the same thing.

The lesson—he told me, and he tells them—is to go back and look at the ideas you ignored. Select one of them. If you (all) came up with the idea first presented then chances are your competitors and the rest of the market will be doing that, too. Standing out will be much more challenging. The less obvious ideas are the ones that may reveal the greatest promise.

It’s important to note that my friend—and his teams—were not trying to find an idea which would be successful. They were trying to find an idea that is most worthy of investigation, worthy of some (low cost) user research effort that might reveal hitherto unmet needs among users and customers. Investigating a selection of normally-ignored ideas is most likely to reveal one which could very likely be a success.

This approach reminds me of something I’ve written about before: that when we have to prioritise among many user research hypotheses it is better to prioritise ideas about which we are least certain. The closer we are to 50/50 confidence in an idea the less certain we are about it, and the more valuable actual research is.

We want to pursue success, but sometimes the best way to do that is to pursue those things that are not so obviously a winner.

Photo by Max Lupo