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Generating a Disruptive Idea: Unexpected Ideas Have Fewer Competitors

How do you transform an opportunity into an idea? Luke Williams explores the stumbling blocks to generating disruptive ideas and how to overcome them.
This chapter is from the book
  • “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
  • —Albert Einstein1

The Walt Disney Entertainment Company, one of the world’s foremost storytellers, came to frog design a few years ago with a challenge. The company wanted to bring serious consumer electronics to their target demographic: kids. This was a disruptive hypothesis, because at the time, there weren’t any consumer electronics for kids. Conventional industry wisdom always dredged up “My First Sony,” which was an unsuccessful attempt by Sony to break into this market ten years earlier with a product that was too expensive, lacked breadth, and looked too much like a toy. “We tried that ten years ago, and it failed” is an anathema to anyone interested in disruptive thinking.

Industry observers had already dismissed this market segment as a dead end. But Disney is a content company, not a consumer-electronics company. Given its strong brand recognition, emotional resonance, and unique customer loyalty, Disney recognized that it was uniquely positioned to address this market in a different way. It sensed an opportunity to bring consumer electronics to life and infuse an entire line of products with Disney magic. The challenge went deeper than just slapping Mickey’s face onto otherwise standard products. Disney wanted its brand association to be obvious, yet subtle.

But, opportunities by themselves don’t lead to profits or lasting change. Disney needed to leverage its brand identity, integrate content elements, and expand the world of its beloved characters to create a usable idea that would emotionally resonate with kids and would have enough usable features to convince parents that they weren’t buying yet another piece of junk. One of the first things we did was break down Disney’s characters. We got books of all the most famous Disney films and cut out the eyes, hands, heads, and bodies of all the characters. We worked with a Disney animator to deconstruct the characters even further, carefully observing how they used basic components, like circles and lines, to give their characters personality and movement. After breaking them down like this, we noticed that there were definitely some patterns shared by characters—things most people never consciously notice.

Think about the perfect position of Mickey Mouse’s ears: They never move, regardless of the position of his head, and that helps deliver a consistent silhouette. Or, the pervasive sense of asymmetry that gives characters a feel of constant movement, creating a sense of urgency and excitement.

Breaking down these patterns and thinking creatively about how we could connect them to consumer electronics laid the foundation for an entire product family, which is now distributed worldwide and generates $500 million in sales per year. Initially, we developed two products: a cordless phone and a two-way radio, both of which captured the essence of Disney characters without being too literal. For example, the mouthpiece of the phone looked like a smile and had a tiny lip line. The antenna took cues from Goofy’s tail, and Donald Duck’s eyes provided an analog for the design of the LCD display. It was all done very subtly, but when you held it in your hand, there was no question that it just felt like Disney.

As the Disney story shows, the big question for this chapter is: How do you transform an opportunity into an idea?

Transforming an Opportunity into an Idea

Well, the first thing is to get comfortable with the belief that any old ideas won’t do. What we’re interested in are disruptive ideas; that is, ideas with the power for great impact and influence. Ideas that challenge assumed boundaries and inspire a sense of what’s possible. In my experience, however, most ideas never get anywhere near this level.

There are three major stumbling blocks:

  1. Teams and individuals feel overwhelmed, directionless, and lack focus.
  2. Many organizations still think of the world in terms of isolated products, services, and information.
  3. Most ideas never get articulated in anything other than water-cooler conversations.

Let’s look at all three stumbling blocks in more detail.

Stumbling Block 1 Teams and individuals feel overwhelmed, directionless, and lack focus.

In my experience, this is the direct result of relying on traditional brainstorming approaches, which, by the way, have been around since the 1930s, when ad-man Alex Faickney Osborn first popularized them in his book, Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming, but he placed little emphasis on how to focus creative thinking and refine the quality of the output. The brainstorming method relies on participants saying anything that comes to mind, in response to a loosely defined focus, with the hope that something might just prove useful.

On its face, that sounds reasonable. But, the problem is that traditional brainstorming has ignored the huge difference between generating lots of ideas and capturing quality ideas. As a result, brainstorming sessions often leave organizations and teams feeling overwhelmed and directionless—a state Beth Comstock at GE insightfully calls, “paralyzed by possibility.”2 Simply put, if your ideas are going to have any disruptive impact, you need to move beyond a shotgun approach to brainstorming and start pursuing creative effort with a laser-sharp focus.

Stumbling Block 2 Many organizations still think of the world in terms of isolated products, services, and information.

This is a mistake. They should be thinking more holistically of product-service-information hybrids. It’s getting harder and harder to compete if you don’t. The real advantage comes when your disruptive idea is blended in such a way that the product, service, and information components can’t be broken apart.3 For example, the disruptive idea behind the iPhone is that it blends product (e.g., iPhone with iPhone OS), service (iTunes+App Store), and information from the network (which includes wireless providers, Google, Yahoo!, iPhone developers, related iPhone social networks and communities, and the manufacturers).

To get a better sense of what I’m talking about, consider this quote from Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things: “...this Sangiovese may be a ‘classic’ wine from the Mediterranean basin, but this bottle is no longer a classic artifact. It has been gizmo-ized.”

Gizmo-ized is another way of saying that even a product as ancient as a bottle of wine no longer stands alone as a static object; it’s dynamic. “It is offering me more functionality than I will ever be able to explore,” Sterling writes, “This wine bottle aims to educate me—it is luring me to become more knowledgeable about the people and processes that made the bottle and its contents. It wants to recruit me to become an unpaid promotional agent, a wine critic, an opinion maker—it wants me to throw wine-tasting parties and tell all my friends about my purchase.”4

In Sterling’s view, there is nothing frivolous or extraneous about this sudden explosion of informational intimacy between himself (with his laptop), and a bottle of wine (with its website): “My relationship with this bottle of wine is a parable of my human relationship to all objects.”5 It enables a deeper, more intimate relationship between consumers and producers.

Clearly, we need a new mindset when it comes to generating ideas: one focused on the dynamics of a blended whole, rather than the details of its isolated parts. In other words, the relationship between a product, a service, and the information they provide is more important than the details of any one particular feature alone.

That said, don’t slip into thinking of disruptive ideas only in relation to new gadgets and technology. You can develop disruptive ideas for any opportunity you desire.

Stumbling Block 3 Most ideas never get articulated in anything other than water-cooler conversations.

As a result, they rarely escape people’s heads and instead remain there, unformed. The view from inside the company, however, is different. One of the most common phrases I hear from clients is, “We don’t need any more ideas; we have too many.” But when I ask to see the documented ideas they have, they start backpedaling: “Well, we don’t have them written down or anything. But, we discuss them a lot.”

That’s the problem in a nutshell. You can talk about ideas in general terms, at least for a while. However, abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and remember it. So, to increase the potential, you have to stop talking about it and explain it in sensory terms. “Sketch it out!,” as Hartmut Esslinger, founder of frog design, used to say. (He wouldn’t listen to an idea if you hadn’t done so.) Ambiguity disappears when you describe your ideas in visual or written form.

Getting past these three stumbling blocks is a challenge. The chaos of a creative process is overwhelming. It’s easier to think in terms of isolated products, services, and information, rather than blended hybrids. And, it takes considerably less effort to vaguely talk about ideas rather than specifically describe and visualize them.

This is where the methods in this chapter come into play. They will help you move past these stumbling blocks and generate the kind of disruptive ideas that transform compelling opportunities into commercial offerings.

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