Why Focusing on Creating Choice Is Crucial In Developing the New New.
We make 35,000 choices a day.
From the pants we throw on in the morning to the scone-or-no-scone quandary we face at Starbucks, we are constantly evaluating the options in front of us and selecting a path forward.
Making choices is so inherent to our daily lives that entire disciplines have emerged analyzing the science and psychology behind why we choose what we choose.
Dating apps now know how we choose mates in an age where digital dating choices can seem infinite.
Decision Science graduate degrees are popping up globally.
Grocery merchandisers know the exact number of marmalade flavors to display to reduce consumer indecision and maximize their sales.
What we may forget in all of this meta-analysis (how do we choose how we choose what we choose? *head explodes*) is that we actually tend to be good at making choices. We may not make the right choice all of the time, but we’re generally effective at making the choice itself.
Making decisions is now as effortless and passive as breathing — the caveman paralyzed by which scone to buy likely didn’t evade his predators long enough to perpetuate those indecisive genes.
The ability to make decisions has become so highly valued in our world that it has made its way into our career performance evaluation criteria and incentive structures. Successful leaders are often celebrated for their “decisiveness” and “ability to make tough decisions”. Sworn political enemies even compliment the contrary decisions that others make by lauding the fact that, well, at least a decision was made.
Is this a bad thing? No. This is largely a valuable skill to have — to take a series of inputs (choices), evaluate them against a set of priorities (preferences), and decide on the best resulting output (decision).
What we need to be aware of, however, is when and how we choose to employ this skill.
Take, for example, a classic business strategy question faced by any multinational firm — what country do we expand our products to next? Any good strategy analyst would pull together the most recent list of recognized countries, decide on the economic, social, technological, and political factors that make a market attractive, gather the appropriate country data, develop a scoring methodology, compare results across countries, create a PowerPoint deck full of funnel diagrams, and present a prioritized list of markets to executives at the next monthly leadership meeting.
This approach makes sense. It does for this particular challenge.
Here we are comfortable that our outputs (which country?) are limited by the choices that our inputs offer (number of countries in the world). There is a high degree of certainty in the desired output-type and the inputs that fulfill that criteria. We expect the solution to be a country and are comfortable with the option set we have.
But what about when the business challenge is a bit more nebulous?
What new-to-the-world product or service do we bring to market?
How do we disrupt ourselves before being disrupted?
How do we create our own innovative future?
These are questions that start-ups and the Fortune 500 ask themselves every day. Given that each of these questions is a challenge to create something new, picking amongst today’s existing choices won’t yield satisfying results.
A Chef’s Challenge
Take, for example, a struggling restaurant in the heart of Faro, Portugal. The restaurant’s owner, facing competition from a saturated local market, challenges his head chef to come up with a new, innovative culinary creation to attract new patrons.
The chef, who has lived in Faro his entire life and worked at this particular restaurant for his entire career, takes on the challenge. As the resident expert in the region’s culinary practices, ingredients, and cuisine, he is confident he can deliver for his boss. To get started, he props himself at the restaurant bar, pours himself a glass of wine, and examines his own menu and those of his competitors. However, he struggles. What can I create that isn’t already out there today? Each recipe variation or ingredient substitution he considers may be a good addition to the menu, but is it going to fulfill the criteria of “new” and “innovative”?
Now, imagine an extension of this scenario wherein the chef, instead of just looking at his own menu and those of his competitors for inspiration, also looks beyond. The restaurant’s owner tells him to spend a week away from the restaurant to explore new cuisines, geographies, and disciplines. The chef, heeding the direction, packs his bags.
He spends time on a coffee farm learning how beans are roasted and in a bakery learning the art of pastry decoration. He takes a class on essential oils and meets with a practitioner of Eastern medicine. And, before heading home, he tours nearby Lisbon’s architecture with an expert in the art of Feng shui.
Then, upon returning to Faro, he props himself up at the same restaurant bar, pours himself a glass of wine, and devotes himself to creating that recipe.
In which scenario is the chef more likely to concoct something innovative and new-to-the-market?
The second, of course. In leaving the walls of his own restaurant and market, the chef exposed himself to new potential options to draw from while creating a solution.
This is not to say that the chef, in only examining existing restaurant menus, could not produce a genius invention on his own. But by drawing from his existing option set — his own experience, the region’s ingredients, popular cooking techniques — the chef limits his chances of creating something new.
In exposing himself to new industries, geographies, and culinary practices, the chef boosted his toolkit of potential solutions to draw from. Sure, creative genius comes into play, but creativity is often just a numbers game. A volume game. If you have the largest roster of ideas to pick from, you have a larger change of picking something unique.
And, given the competitive pressures, why would the restaurant not want to increase its chances of succeeding with something new?
Why This Matters to Innovators
In the previous example, it’s easy to conclude that exposure to new industries, geographies, and culinary practices will increase the chef’s ability to innovate in the kitchen.
So why do we, as innovators, often limit ourselves to the existing option set — our own intelligences, existing market offerings, industry experts — when tasked with creating the new new?
It is because we are comfortable with, we’re good at, and we value our making choices skillset over the creating choices skillset. But if we depend only on our ability to make choices without first creating choices, our efforts to innovate will be futile.
If we continue to choose from today’s option set, we’ll continue to deliver today’s solutions.
Creating Choice through Inspiration
It is crucial to incorporate inspiration research into your solution design research whenever tasked with creating something new, whether it be process-oriented or a new-to-market product launch.
Our chances of delivering a truly novel solution to the world dramatically increase when we consciously expand the number of options we are able to choose from.
It is also easier than you think, but requires that you be:
Humble: To successfully incorporate inspiration research into your work you must acknowledge that you, your team, your leadership, and your industry do not have all of the answers, especially when it comes to creating something new. Acknowledge that other industries, firms, and individuals may be doing something exceptional that you can draw from to inspire solutions.
Generative: Inspiration research is not about finding one single answer. It’s about increasing the number of potential answers. Be wary of putting on your decision hat too soon. Even better, pick an arbitrary number of inspiration sources or even new concept ideas that you have to hit before you’re allowed to switch brains.
Open: Inspiration research is largely based off of hunches, hunches that your ultimate solution will benefit from exploring activity X. There are no guarantees and you would be fibbing if you shared a linear argument as to how your exploration with directly inform your solution. You must be open that your hunches may or may not directly help your work, in addition to being open that something else may emerge later on in the project that you choose to explore. This can be the most difficult mindset to adopt for resource-constrained executives, who seek to understand how company inputs directly tie to outputs.
Curious: Effective inspiration research hinges upon a deep curiosity of what is out there beyond the singular focus of a particular project. Prepare your research by listing out industries, activities, rituals, habits, products, services, and professions that you think might be interesting to explore in the context of your project. If you are tasked with designing the world’s next best stroller, look beyond the strollers that are out there today. What else has four wheels and moves that you can learn from? What moves without wheels? How do we efficiently move other things around? Can we learn anything from those popular massage chairs at Sharper Image? In your research, follow your gut on what is interesting to explore further. Don’t worry if it feels unrelated to your project or not the original research goal.
Organizationally-Aware: Very few companies will agree to fly you across the world to explore loosely related activities just to get “inspired”. Develop an understanding of your leadership’s willingness to try new things and, most importantly, what resources are available to allocate towards this work. At the beginning, I suggest you start with a time-boxed Google search for industries and activities you think could be interesting to your work. Print visual representations of that inspiration out and hang up in your workspace. Not only will this help your team keep these topics in mind, but it will also serve as an easy socialization tactic for office mates unfamiliar with this method as they walk by.
So get out there, see new parts of your neighborhood, search some wacky things on Google, and print a lot of things out.
And if you’re ever stuck, may I suggest traveling to Portugal, propping yourself up at a restaurant bar, and sipping on a glass of wine? It seemed to work for the hypothetical chef in this article.
Luke is the Principal of Paper Ventures (www.paperventures.com), a digital product shop focused on new venture creation, development, and launch. He helps early-stage entrepreneurs take a pragmatic, iterative, and human approach to the design, prototyping, and development of forward looking visions.
Get in touch @ luke.f.fraser [at] gmail [dot] com.