An Inspiration-Driven Approach to Innovation

By Prophet

In a recent New Yorker article entitled “Groupthink” (January 30, 2012), Jonathan Lehrer rightfully challenges the notion of the brainstorm as the ne plus ultra of concept generation, further arguing that individuals – with provocative stimulus – often out-perform well-intentioned, but under-inspired groups both in terms of quantity and quality of ideas. For those of us who have spent no small amount of time participating in and/or facilitating such sessions, the result is far from surprising – which is why our industry places such a premium on addressing the right sets of problems, with the right mix of people in the right type of creatively-charged environments. All of that preparation, however, risks being wasted if we fail to incorporate multiple forms of out-of-category inspiration – in essence, ensuring that what Mr. Lehrer characterizes as “unfamiliar perspectives” are baked into the concept generation process itself. Otherwise, if the same people get in the same room to stare at the same stuff, we shouldn’t complain if the results are lackluster and well, the same.

While the role of the ideation session, in its myriad guises, holds a place in the innovation firmament, and while the role that inspiration plays in such sessions is hardly to be questioned, we challenged ourselves to think more broadly about the role that inspiration plays throughout the innovation process. Ultimately, we determined that an inspiration-driven approach to innovation fundamentally changes how each process step looks, feels and, most importantly, the value it delivers. This insight further bolstered our belief that although inspiration necessarily plays a role in all innovation, it is very often misapplied, underutilized, or mistimed – the results of which vary from misdirected resources, to misguided ideas to, yet worse, great ideas that don’t go anywhere. If your desire is truly to tackle new problems in ways they haven’t been addressed before, and to arrive at new solutions in ways that galvanize internal teams and excite external audiences, take a look at how your company’s innovation process stacks up against Prophet’s inspiration-driven approach. Hopefully, you too will come to agree with our dictum that “Inspiration is Serious Business.”

Prophet’s inspiration-driven approach comes to life through our five-step Aspire to Realize process, and as you might expect, inspiration plays a central role at each step:

Step 1: Aspire.
Inspiration redefines boundaries and rallies us around the destination

Innovation is stifled at many companies because it labors getting out of the gate. Concepts enter the pipeline haphazardly, or because the boss says so. Some small initiatives never achieve critical mass, and falter on the starting blocks. “Big ideas” may ostensibly make it into the pipeline, but in practice lose out to “short-term wins,” never becoming actual projects. An inspiration-driven approach counters this tendency by imagining different “destinations,” from incremental to transformational, and by pushing to articulate the big/bigger/biggest opportunity areas that can fundamentally change the business.  Defining these boundaries upfront liberates the team, ensuring that the scope of their ambition is larger than they can comfortably grasp while still within a clear line of sight to the company’s overall business objectives.

Case in point: Working with a major health club operator, we identified three big/bigger/biggest opportunity areas – “Easy Active,” “Personalized Active” and “More than Fitness”. The first gave greater impetus for ongoing initiatives. The last was so big as to lack focus. Tackling “Personalized Active” however, helped the client re-imagine the business in a manner that opened up many potential new, relevant—and reachable—opportunities.

 Step 2: Immerse.
Inspiration broadens and deepens our insights and forces provocative thinking.

Many businesses sit on a trove of market data, consumer insight work and glorified “macrotrend” reports. And while there’s probably no more powerful a form of inspiration than getting out in the field, clients increasingly say that even their most diligent ethnographic efforts are starting to reach the point of insight saturation. All this means that how a company successfully sources and employs inspiration can be, in itself, a form of competitive advantage. It makes it key to incorporate not just “direct” forms of inspiration (your consumers, competitors, and marketplace), but to look at “tangential” and “abstract” forms, as well. Tangential sources include out-of-category insights that serve as leading indicators and shape a future view of consumer and market behavior in today’s interconnected world. Abstract sources of inspiration go far outside of your category or traditional frame of reference to open up altogether new perspectives, explore how relevant themes and tensions play out, and also to refresh your creative mindset.

Case in point:The insights team at a men’s hair styling brand had long since discovered that guys didn’t open up much about their hair, and what they did reveal was already known by the team. To get guys to express their opinions more openly, we convened a style lab where gel and putty users were pitted against each other in a debate team format. The environment for arguing pros and cons of styling was artificial, but still a more enlightening setting for discovering biases and language barriers around products.

Step 3: Create.
Inspiration drives big ideas and helps smaller ideas have big impact.

By the time we get to the Create phase, a lot of the hard work has already been done: we’ve aligned on a compelling opportunity area and we’ve looked at it through altogether different perspectives, creating new and lasting insights. In this phase, we use our PLAYSTUDIO ideation approach to create a space in which a diverse set of problem-solvers can experience all of the inspiring stimuli we’ve uncovered. But, more importantly, we would argue, is what comes after the ideation. Too often, we see companies rushing to prioritize raw, half-baked ideas, before actually nurturing them into self-standing concepts, and before synthesizing those concepts into fully-fledged innovation platforms.

Without evolving concepts to a crystallized vision, and without bundling those to tell a bigger story, we run the risk of over-investing in spot efforts, when we should instead be aligning scarce resources more efficiently, and in a manner that ultimately leads to a more defensible portfolio. By zooming out to prioritize at the platform, rather than concept, level, we can also see where potential opportunity areas are under-represented in terms of concept breadth and depth. This prompts subsequent rounds of ideation and iteration, and ultimately leads to a richer portfolio of stronger ideas.

Case in point: A nutritional packaged goods client had no problem creating high-scoring, appealing concepts. The problem was that each on its own was too small to hurdle the company’s internal tollgates. By identifying a pattern of successful individual concepts, we developed a $100MM “Hidden Nutrition” platform around the bigger idea of “hiding” a full serving of fruits and vegetables in every all-family snack.  

Step 4: Evaluate.
Inspiration pressure tests the options from all sides and puts the known and unknown on equal footing.

Nothing can be more disheartening to an innovation team than facing the gauntlet of qual/quant consumer testing. In order to hear from consumers and get concepts into the pipeline, there’s a rush to impose a “rational,” objective measure in a manner that’s out of balance with the passions (of consumers and internal team members) that nascent, and often murky, concepts engender. To set this balance right takes evaluating concepts in a way that merges intuition with proof. Teams are first empowered to imagine they live in a world without budgets for consumer testing. What ideas do they believe hold the most worth to the organization, and the most value to consumers? Which innovations are most inspiring to them on a personal basis? Working from a subset of concepts that the team passionately champions, we engage consumers who should love our ideas, to work with us to actively improve a short-list of prioritized concepts. Then we turn to more quantitative tools to refine the offering for a target audience and to establish the financial metrics to aid the business case. Having engaged the core team in an evaluation process that builds champions as we go along, this final act of “running the numbers” is about providing the rest of the organization with the burden of proof it needs to pull the trigger.

Case in point: The “Wicked Spoon” at the Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas was intended to re-invent the classic Vegas buffet to appeal to the hotel’s “Curious Class” target (i.e. a group that would not be caught dead in a buffet). Would the group be open to a buffet at all, even one conceived around artfully constructed small plates? We convened a “salon” with participants such as a digital producer, a premium travel agent, a documentary filmmaker, and a style blogger to get early buy-in and feedback from the types whose buzz would be priceless as the concept went live.And the Wicked Spoon went on to be on Forbes Top Ten List, Most Memorable Dining Experiences, 2011.)

Inspiration moves us beyond planning for success, to actually achieving success.

The more game-changing the idea, the more it pushes a company, ideally, into an altogether new sub-category as the limitations of traditional stage-gate processes reveal themselves. Ideas that stretch teams and organizations to enter into new channels, build new revenue streams and forge new partnerships require a bold vision to generate enthusiasm among internal and external stakeholders. At a high level, we work with our clients to identify the five most critical factors of success and embody them in a “Plan to Win” setting out the purpose behind the new venture. At a more micro level, we create a “Playbook” for activating the plan. The very act of making the Playbook a tangible object galvanizes any organization. They are the first things clients bring to subsequent launch meetings, and often the last thing taken away from the project…before starting on the next.

Case in point: We worked with a leading corporate leadership training center to establish a brand for itself in an era where its stature and leadership in general, had seen radical change. Setting the vision was one thing, but the transformation the campus was to undertake would require innovation at all levels, from the physical plant, to curriculum to the pre-, during- and post-training experience. In this case, the Playbook became the go-to “bible” for those championing change internally on a daily basis.

All told, our inspiration-driven approach to innovation ensures that inspiration is not used merely as an antidote to the perils of Lehrer’s humdrum brainstorming; rather, we make sure it is the oxygen in the room that’s actively infused throughout the innovation process, neither showing up too late, nor leaving too early, to get to meaningful innovation and market impact.

We have a manifesto for inspiration at Prophet. Part of it reads: “It’s not a Hallmark moment, nor is it something for which you wait to hit…We believe it’s the secret ingredient of innovation. When tapped properly, it fills your head with observations… that lead to insights… that spur ideas…that create irresistible products, services, and experiences.” That “it” is inspiration and inspiration is indeed serious business.

Phyllis Rothschild ( is a Partner at Prophet, a strategic brand and marketing consultancy that helps its clients win by delivering inspired and actionable ideas.

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