The Inspiration Discipline

By Fred Geyer and Jesse Purewal

The quest for growth ignites – indeed, requires – ever more dramatic on-ramps to inspire breakthrough products. Samsung dispatches ethnographers to follow teenagers in New York and Tokyo in search of mobile-device design insights. A competition in emerging markets sponsored by HP generates affordable home electronics ideas. P&G famously co-developed Mr. Clean Magic Eraser through a unique partnership between outside designers, company scientists, and brand managers.

Stories of the "must-have product" and the "killer app" foster the illusion that there is a silver bullet for creating ideas. If we just created a more entrepreneurial culture, argues Yahoo, we could attract the brightest engineers from around Silicon Valley, who would develop products that re-established the company’s leadership. If we just increased R&D expenditures, argues Siemens, we could displace GE in key segments by creating faster, safer, and more reliable engines.

Alas, successful innovators report that there’s no magic formula. The notion of the single "killer insight" is as mythical as the "hero CEO" whose hand alone steers a company to success. Innovation is borne of collectively generated, inspired ideas, but the reality is that most organizations are not structured to effectively or rapidly transform its people’s ideas into reality. So how do great innovators do it? Is there at least some common characteristic in the DNA of companies like 3M and Disney that allow them to consistently create great stuff and great experiences? Is that characteristic transferrable to organizations across industries, sectors, and geographies?

At Prophet, we have identified six common sources of inspiration that effective innovators such as Disney, Apple, Google, and P&G use to drive growth. Most important, they have the discipline to leverage and act on these sources of inspiration to consistently create great stuff and great experiences.

Every organization can become a productive source of inspired and actionable ideas through the Inspiration Discipline, the hard work of "looking at more stuff and thinking about it about it harder" across the six sources of inspiration – company capabilities, brand DNA, customer insight, industry and trend analysis, experiential analogs, and company attic or archives – and assemble these inputs into coherent actionable ideas. While Disciplined Inspiration demands time and effort, the returns can be great. Inspiration pushes idea generation and application to a higher level, which leads to sustainable innovation – across all markets and categories.

Inspired to clean. Consider Procter & Gamble’s development of the Swiffer product line. Like the Magic Eraser, the first Swiffer Duster was developed in conjunction with outside engineers seeking to commercialize new cleaning technology. But this was just one input to the innovation. P&G also pored over customer research, which revealed a strong dissatisfaction with the painful, messy, and unattractive mop-and-broom approach. Their teams accompanied scores of professional housekeepers to work to discover that they were seeking a more portable and disposable solution, even as innovation in home cleaning was moving toward heavier, more industrial solutions. The company also examined home construction data to reveal a fast-growing number of wooden-floored homes, which lend themselves to quicker and easier cleaning methods. The intersection of these insights gave rise to the idea of a lightweight mop with disposable cloths, the first of many products in P&G’s Swiffer line – which joined the company’s stable of billion-dollar brands in just a few short years.

Inspired to buy. Amazon’s Prime, a program that allows customers to pay $79 per year for unlimited 2-day shipping for just about every product, is another Inspired idea. E-commerce retailers had known for years that shipping costs and lag times were key barriers to online shopping. However, no online players looked as keenly at potential solutions to the problem as did Amazon. The company combined a core capability (operations and distribution), a key customer insight (the main reason for not buying more online was the lag between purchase and delivery), and an ecosystem trend (significant investment in logistics excellence by FedEx and UPS) to provide its customers an intriguing choice – whether to pay an annual "I want it now" of $79 to eliminate the classic tradeoff between convenience (online shopping) and fulfilment (offline shopping). Amazon Prime has massively increased customer satisfaction and created tremendous leverage for Amazon, generating 20% of the company’s U.S. sales from the 3-4% of users that subscribe to the service.

Inspired to build. BMW, a pioneer in the use of marketing and communications technologies to build its brand, had been seeking to extend the relevance of its Mini sub-brand and develop a value proposition that could compete with Scion (Toyota). The company took notice of the skyrocketing popularity of online video gaming, specifically, players’ ability to build their own characters, tools, and strategies in order to customize the individual user experience. BMW successfully borrowed from the customization notion in developing an online "configurator" for the Mini brand. Drawing heavily on the types of software that enable video gamers to build their own designs, the platform provides an engaging, easy-to-navigate experience that can both broaden customers’ understanding of options for the vehicle and also deepen their enthusiasm for the Mini brand. The idea has become so tied to the Mini brand, and the execution of the web tool has been so strong, that competitors who’ve tried to emulate the tool have failed to equal or leapfrog the innovation, giving Mini a sustainable advantage with the customer targets with whom the brand is attempting to build brand preference and market share.

Inspired to read. The proliferation of individual media content apps for smartphones and other mobile devices has created an uninspiring cluster of newspapers and magazines that sit on virtual shelves, pulled down one by one as the user chooses a magazine or newspaper to read. This has changed with the introduction of Flipboard, a tablet application (created by the eponymous company) that aggregates all the media content a user cares about – from sources as diverse as Facebook, Fox News, and Time Magazine – and compiles it into a personalized magazine format.

Flipboard’s innovation capitalized on the intersection of four key trends – an exploding tablet market; improving personalization algorithms on media websites; rapid growth in digital content, and increasing ubiquity of broadband. The company’s experiential analog was the print magazine format – Flipboard ingeniously delivers digital content to customers in a format that is familiar, intuitive, and fresh, cutting through the clutter of existing applications and pushing publishers and advertisers to create higher-quality, more-relevant content. And the key unmet customer need of having all of one’s favorite online content from news sites, blogs, and social media outlets in a single place inspired product development from the very beginning.

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Innovation does not happen overnight, and it does not happen in a vacuum. As the above examples demonstrate, even the Inspiration Discipline requires companies to astutely observe and act on inputs that may only be partially visible at first glance. Companies looking to benefit from lasting innovation will do well to set aside time and resources to studying trends within and across categories, determining which questions aren’t being asked today, and considering how to capitalize on their strengths, competencies and competitive advantages to answer those questions with products and services that matter.

Look at more stuff. Think about it harder.

And be inspired.


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