Research for Innovation

When we are presented with a business problem, we can either attack it from an already existing reality (an existing brand, technology, etc) Or, if it is ultimately a new type of problem, we will need to attack it with a fresh mind and try to solve it  from scratch.

These two distinctions will largely determine what research approach we use.

Innovation is an art (taken at the Saatchi Gallery)

If you are building or improving upon a certain existing business reality (currently established technology for instance), you need to understand how people value and perceive this technology, how they use it and what limits it currently has. This is when more traditional and analytical Research methodologies are very effective to understand the past and present and help shape future decisions.

But when it comes to questions that require projections into uncharted waters (like: We have this great technological advancement: How can we incorporate it into our business?) Then Research has to evolve to meet the predictive needs of the problem at hand.

This type of research becomes more of a hunt for patterns, and an amalgamation of different sources and inspirations from different markets, categories, countries. This is what is referred to as Design Research and in this process it becomes imperative that we balance raw analytics with informed intuition. Despite the “fluffy” connotations that the word intuition has when it comes to business solutions, it is in fact something much more sound. Intuition in this sense is not meant to be understood as unbound imagination or “gut sense”. Intuition should be informed, grounded, and the fruit of accumulated past experiences in other Research projects, other fields and other markets.

These are processes that are often iterative in nature as they start from assumptions and work their way through incremental changes and through the use of prototyping or even pretotyping (see my previous post on pretotyping).

It is no secret that differentiation is the Holy Grail in business breakthroughs (and in everything really: from securing a job versus other candidates to dating that girl in high school). But in a world where “Best practice” is yearned for, where products and communications are benchmarked against competitors and norms, it becomes quite a task to stand out. When everybody measures their success by contrasting their outputs with the market practice, Imitation is more probable than Innovation.

That is why to achieve differential innovation, the whole participatory team must strive to step out of their knowledge comfort zones, and accept a certain level of ambiguity. This is specially true as when comparing with other more traditional forms of research, the qualitative nature of the insights gathered through the Design Research projects do not offer the tranquility and safety of statistically representative numbers.

This ambiguity does not confront the validity of this type of Research. However it does mean that a special effort needs to be undertaken by the team members, to stress test all findings and be able to challenge and rethink any conclusions.

So, to attack a business problem that demands for an innovative solution that cannot rely heavily on the past or present, it is good to use informed insights, but it is great if we can complement these with some grounded intuition that will allow us to creatively iterate until we reach sustainable differentiation.

Would love to hear any personal experiences you’ve had on this.

As always, thanks for reading.

Take care amigos,


(Post finished to the tune of Space Cowboy by Steve Miller)


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The S word explained through the F word

The S word that I use so much at work. Everybody likes to use it. It commands authority. It makes you look like you know what you are talking about. Strategy.

So what is Strategy? We love to say it, but are we using this term correctly?

Let’s take this example that might work (more or less) to explain the S word in a simple manner: through Food. The context is the following: I was recently immersed in a cooking competition amongst friends. Two of my friends that don’t cook at all would be acting as the judges of the competition that spanned over five meals in two months. In this period they visited 10 different houses (including mine) and tasted and graded the same 5 dishes.

So with this example laid out for us we now have defined a competitive environment (10 cooks) , a specific service (cooking the same 5 meals), similar restrictions (ingredients, recipes, utensils, time…) and a common goal: to win over the stomachs and the grading of two judges.

So what was my Strategy going to be with all my dishes?


What is Strategy anyway? Let’s start by discussing what it’s not.

Strategy isn’t operational efficiency

Had I known all the recipes by heart (which I didn’t) I could perhaps have done simultaneous tasks at once (for the first dish which was lasagna for instance, prepare the cheese while the sauce simmers, etc). This is operational efficiency not strategy. Doing things faster (or cheaper for instance) than rivals is not something that can be sustained in the long-term (over an extended period of time this would even out). So whilst best practice operations are great for minimising wastage of resources (and maintaining costs down), best practices are easily emulated and not sustainable in the long run. As such they do not constitute a Strategy in itself. Operational efficiency is required to reach Strategy, but it isn’t enough.

Strategy isn’t technology or specific tools

In the same line as above. Strategy isn’t using the latest technology just for technology’s sake. I would only be able to outperform my cooking rivals if I established a significant difference in the way I did things, and if I added value to their experience in my home or through the food I prepared. So having the latest machine to cook the pasta for the first Lasagna dish, whilst advantageous, would still not be considered a Strategy.

So again, what does the S word mean?

Strategy means performing activities differently than rivals or performing different activities that are relevant to your consumers/customers/clients (in my case, my judges). This is when positioning plays a huge role as with a solid positioning you create for yourself a unique and valuable territory, that sets you apart from rivals.

And as you can’t adopt all positions, you need to evaluate trade offs between alternatives. This means that Strategy is as much deciding where/what you want to be as much as it is deciding where/what you don’t.

My Strategy for this particular gastronomical objective was not to focus too much on the dishes in themselves but more on the peripherals. My 9 rivals would be for sure delivering quality meals. The 5 dishes could be viewed as commodities. So, whilst I needed the meals to be flawless, I thought I needed something else to differentiate my offer and succeed in my goal.  I wanted to start winning the judges by the dishes, but add value through everything that surrounded them.

My strategy was to offer not only a quality meal, but a unique dining environment and as such I did two main things:

1) Stacked up on what were the judges’ favourite music bands and made a play list for the dinner (subtle environmental edge was gained here…)

2) For each of the five meals I invited friends we have in common along to my house (kind of bending the rules for the competition…but bending them within reason!)

My strategy was based on providing a superior dining experience. My aspirations were that they would enjoy the dinner (food+music+company) so much that they would forget that it was a test. And that was a good thing. The insight here was that tests are boring not only to people who take them, but also for people who grade them. I wanted my judges to feel like they weren’t judging anything at all as I thought this would improve their overall perceptions of the meals.

So every one of the five meals along those two months they would find different people at the table, and we would discuss different things (at the same time they tried and enjoyed my cooking).

The Food was only the start, the rest was the Strategy.

I leave you with a great video where Michael Porter, leading authority on company strategy, talks  in more detail about the S word (without mentioning the F word)

Take care amigos,


(post finished to the tune of Selling The Drama by Live)

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