It’s easier to come up with an improvement than an entirely new thing. Most innovation techniques emphasize this and rely on it. They avoid the intimidation of the blank page by riffing on something that already exists. In this post, I explore what would happen if we did the opposite. What would happen if instead of “given the givens” we asked what we would do with a clear sheet of paper.
Why do you need to do it at all?
Before devoting a lot of thought to improving an existing product or service, it can be helpful to return to basics and ask what would happen if the product or service didn’t exist? What company or business model would rush in to fill the void? If Uber disappeared, would an Uber competitor appear, or public transit? Would people walk instead?
I recently facilitated for a group coming up with ideas on how to deal with or reduce the waste from disposable coffee cups. One line of thinking centred on what would happen if disposable cups were simply banned from the location. What services would fill the void? Small kiosks that bring the coffee and reusable mugs closer to where the coffee is consumed? Deposits on reusable mugs that can be returned to any coffee vendor at the location?
What would this look like if it were easy?
This is cribbed from Tim Ferris, who first posed this question to himself when pondering his next book. The book, which is titled “Tribe Of Mentors”, was easy because he had people he admired write sections that fill almost all of it. He made stone soup into an anthology.
The result is a 632 page tome that has 4.5 stars on Amazon, mostly written by other people!
Can we sell it without building it?
In his book “Lean Startup, Eric Ries describes two ways to gauge demand for a product – even before a prototype has been built. One is two simply prepare a brochure and review it with prospective customers for feedback.
The other is to pre-sell the item on a website. You don’t need to collect any money – just assess how often people click on the product to assess how popular it would be if it were for sale.
The incumbents’ greatest fear
Starting with a clean sheet of paper can be an enormous advantage. Tesla’s stated goal of leading the move to electric mobility was unfettered by the legacy and investment other car companies have in the internal combustion engine. They could design and build cars that could take advantage of the unique advantages of electric propulsion – low centre of gravity with batteries in the floor, extra room where the ICE components would be, etc.
Kodak invested in digital photography, but collectively the company didn’t have the will to let it undermine its dominance in film. Blockbuster had an opportunity to buy Netflix long before Netflix made physical video rental obsolete.
There is a pattern here – incumbents rarely survive a transition to a new technology. Even though incumbents have the financial might to out-invest their challengers, they don’t because they are paralyzed by a belief that the change can’t come or a fear that ushering in the change will kill the golden goose of their current product line.
The clean sheet of paper
In presentations and workshops I emphasize the value of incremental innovation. It works and it’s an easy starting point, but don’t overlook the sometimes transformative ideas that asking what would be possible with a clean sheet of paper.