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This chapter is from the book

What Is Your Focus? (Getting Past Stumbling Block 1)

In the beginning of Chapter 2, I talked about how Apple progressed from

  • Observation (people in Mac stores like to touch the computers) to...
  • Insight (you’re rarely intimidated by something you want to touch, and if you’re intimidated, you don’t want to touch it) to...
  • Opportunity (provide people a sense of control over the technology by establishing an immediate physical connection between the user and the computer).

To say there’s an opportunity “to provide customers with a sense of control by establishing an immediate physical connection” is wonderful, but it doesn’t do anything by itself. We need specific ways to accomplish that goal. Remember: Hypotheses feed observations. Observations feed insights. Insights feed opportunities. Opportunities feed ideas.

  • Hypotheses feed observations. Observations feed insights. Insights feed opportunities. Opportunities feed ideas.

Focus Your Creative Effort

At this point, you should have identified and described an opportunity. Now, it’s time to develop the ideas to execute it. You’ll start by breaking down your opportunity into a number of parts and examining each one in a new way. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to all of them. The main point is to focus your creativity.

In Chapter 2, I used the opportunity identified for a car manufacturer: “Provide drivers [who] with ways of being more productive [advantage] that are safe and optimized for driving [gap].”

Now for the breakdown. Start by focusing on one area of an opportunity statement: the advantage. (Opportunity statements can often seem overwhelming, so starting with one small piece will make it easier to work with.) The advantage, in this case, is “productivity.” Then, ask yourself when drivers could make use of their vehicles for productivity.

You might come up with something like this:

When running errands

When making phone calls

When dealing with inspiration (taking notes, for example)

When waiting (at lights, in traffic)

When traveling with kids (entertainment)

There are no “right” or “wrong” breakdowns. And we aren’t trying to come up with a comprehensive breakdown. That’s way too analytical for our purposes and, given how many possibilities there are, I’m not sure it’s even possible. The goal is simply to hone your focus and get those creative juices flowing.

After you have the advantage part of the opportunity broken down, you can start asking yourself all sorts of questions about how to deliver on the gap part of the opportunity. Again consider our car example. The gap part of the opportunity statement is “safe and optimized” for driving. So, some of the questions might be:

How can we safely optimize the way people make phone calls in their car?

Idea: Integrated hands-free phone calls.

How can we safely optimize the way people take notes in their car?

Idea: Hazard avoidance systems.

How can we safely optimize the way people entertain their kids in their car?

Idea: Integrated DVD players.

After you have the opportunity broken down into questions like these, try to answer them with as many new ideas as you can think of—from the obvious to the ridiculous. And be sure not to reject any ideas too quickly. That’s usually the result of applying some real-world constraints to the situation. (“That won’t work because...we don’t have the money, or the resources, or the capacity.”) You’ll have plenty of time to evaluate your ideas later. But for now, stay focused on generating them. And if you need an extra dose of inspiration, check out the next step.

Forcing Connections

It’s always a good tactic to look for examples of how a particular advantage or gap has been addressed in products or services outside of the situation you’re focused on.6 Because the problem is that most easily conceived ideas are the most familiar ones, the ones you’ve experienced most often. As a result, more often than not, the first ideas out of people’s mouths are stale clichés—and the fundamental sin of any disruptive idea is for it to be a cliché. It reminds me of Robert McKee’s advice to would-be film makers: “Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction.... Too often we close novels or exit theaters bored by an ending that was obvious from the beginning, disgruntled because we’ve seen these cliché scenes and characters too many times before.”7 McKee could just as accurately be describing the first ideas to arise from a typical brainstorming session in a corporate boardroom.

To break away from cliché-thinking, you need to develop a habit of looking for alternative ideas instead of immediately accepting the most obvious approaches. Inspiration for break-through ideas often happens in the periphery, in analogous but not necessarily traditionally competitive categories. The next time you’re sweetening your coffee with Sweet’N Low, consider that the only reason it’s touching your lips is because a chemist working on coal tar derivatives made an unexpected discovery: the artificial sweetener saccharin. The goal is to look closely at the unconnected example and figure out how you could apply the entire idea, or part of it, to your needs. As New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman puts it, “The further we push out the boundaries of knowledge and innovation, the more the next great value breakthroughs—that is, the next new hot-selling products and services—will come from putting together disparate things that you would never think of as going together.” 8

For example, a door handle is a physical connection between a person and a building. How could that relate to establishing a physical connection between a person and a computer? Apple’s solution was to put a handle on the iMac so that it’s the first thing people see when they take it out of the box. And grabbing the computer by the handle gives them an immediate sense of control over the technology. This is a powerful exercise, because it’s possible that you could take an idea that was developed in a completely unrelated field and directly apply it to your situation. Think back to the Nintendo Wii and the handheld controller that integrates the movements of a player directly into the video game. The inspiration for the motion controller idea didn’t come from looking at what other video consoles were doing; it came from a completely unrelated source: the accelerometer chip that regulates the airbag in your car. Airbags respond to sudden changes in movement caused by accidents. Nintendo wondered if it would be possible to combine the accelerometer used by airbags with a handheld controller used to play video games. In other words, if you swung the controller like a tennis racket, could a “virtual you” on the screen swing as well? 9

Here’s another example of how bringing two seemingly unrelated thoughts together sparked a new way of seeing things. One morning, a designer sprang into the frog design studio with a little more energy than usual. “I know why everyone says the iPod looks clean!,” he exclaimed. The iPod has become—in the minds of most of our clients and just about everyone else in the world—the poster product of great innovation. Ask anyone to tell you what they find so appealing about the design of the iPod, and, almost without exception, they answer, “I like it because it looks clean.”

Of course, there are obvious clues, such as the minimalist design; the simple, intuitive interface; and the neutral colors. But, these attributes alone don’t fully explain this seemingly universal perception of graceful hygiene. There had to be something deeper. And if a designer claimed that he had the answer, we were all ears.

“So,” the visiting designer said, “as I was sitting on the toilet this morning (which, of course, is where most good ideas come from), I noticed the shiny white porcelain of the bathtub and the reflective chrome of the faucet on the wash basin... and then it hit me! Everybody perceives the iPod as ‘clean’ because it references bathroom materials.”

There were a few seconds of silence...followed quickly by enthusiastic laughter. No, not because he had arrived at this insight by sitting on the toilet. We were laughing because we knew that Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod, came to Apple from a London-based design consultancy where he worked on a lot of lavatory basins.10

Coincidence? Perhaps. But, at the very least, it’s an example of how anything, no matter how unconnected, can spark new perceptions. Often, the more incompatible the connection, the more useful it may be—and the more it can help you break away from cliché-thinking and cultivate a fresh perspective. In the words of serial entrepreneur, Marc Andreessen, “The freshness of an idea can be tested by how much ridicule it provokes. An idea that isn’t ridiculed is probably stale.”11

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