Thursday, January 12, 2012

You Can't "Focus Group" Innovation

I'm not sure what I'm having more fun doing, going on my little design journey or exploring other people's innovations.  It is funny how my own path lead me to other people's great ideas.  I've posted before about some patterns I've witnessed in innovation (the playfulness, the slight subversive quality of going against the grain, the happy accidents, etc.).

The one I want to focus on here is the one referred to in the title.  You can't focus group for innovation.  Sure it is good to have a big group of minds to spur on some new ideas, but most times people will regress to the mean.  They will revert to what is known and comfortable.  The thing about true innovation is that sometimes the idea really comes from left field.  When you think about great innovations, they give us things that we didn't know we needed until we had them.  If you told me 30 years ago that I could keep my entire record collection in my pocket, I would have asked you, "Why on Earth would I want to do that?"  (And that was the 80s when I was wearing those weird parachute pants, and I probably could have kept my collection in my pants).  I didn't even like cassettes back then, so keeping my music on an iPod was far, far beyond the scope of my understanding.  (Now the flying car, that's a different story.) 

When I mention some of the innovations I am seeing around the district, people ask, "But what does the research say about it?"  That question always confuses me.  If the idea is new or ground breaking, then conceivably there should be no research on it.  Study on innovation can only happen retroactively, unfortunately. 

And usually those innovations only occurred because a series of random acts just happened to happen.  I believe in evolution.  Why? Because of cake.  Not monkeys.  Cake.  Each time I bite into a piece of cake, I think to myself, how did someone invent this?  How did it go from a bit of wheat that goes back centuries to this two layered, chocolate ganache bit of heaven?  After a hard day of working on the wheel, some caveman happened to chew on some grain and thought, "Hmm, maybe if I take the outside off, it will taste better."  It did.  Then some other caveman ran it through that other invention, fire.  Along the way, someone decided to grind it to a powder.  Someone else decided to add something to sweeten it.  Someone (a really brave someone) decided to mix that stuff with this thing that shot out of the back end of a chicken.  And so on.

This is what I am thinking about when I eat cake.  The evolution of things.  We look back on the things we have today and it all seems so obvious: these things would have all been invented sooner or later.  I am not so sure.  There seems to be a certain randomness that has to click in order for things to happen, and they usually happen in unexpected ways.

That's why I think we can't focus group innovation.  We can't foresee the random events that have to click to make things happen.  Focus groups are usually comprised of a committee of average people which is why you get average(d) results.  However, if you want to increase your chances and create innovation in a group, put together these kinds of groups:
  • wacky thinkers because they will stretch the boundaries.
  • people who tick us off.  They push us and irritate us out of complacency.  Or at least we will come up with ideas as fast as we can so we, the ticked, can get away from them, the tickers.
  • connectors.  They take ideas from unexpected other domains and put them to use for our purposes.  
  • kindergarten kids.  They have all the above groups.
All of these groups seem to operate better with cookies.  Or maybe cake.


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