The Innovative Power of Criticism29 December, 2015 / Articles
The business world is awash in ideas for new products, services, and business models. Thanks to powerful ideation approaches such as design thinking and crowdsourcing, it has become incredibly easy and relatively inexpensive for companies to obtain a vast number of novel concepts, from both insiders and outsiders such as customers, designers, and scientists. Yet many organizations still struggle to identify and capture big opportunities. A division head at a global consumer electronics corporation recently told me, “We have a mass of ideas, but honestly, we don’t know what to do with them. While we’ve tried to explore some unusual avenues, we’ve ended up committing ourselves to ideas that are already familiar.” From what I have observed, his company is the rule rather than the exception.
Why is this the case? Clayton Christensen, of disruptive innovation fame, and W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, the inventors of “blue ocean strategy,” have shown that big changes in society and technology fundamentally challenge the conventional understanding of what is valuable. Those changes render obsolete whatever criteria companies are using to identify customer problems they could address. To see which ideas truly have potential, managers need new assessment criteria.
From studying and working with 24 companies that have captured big opportunities, I discerned how to create such criteria and synthesized those companies’ individual approaches into one four-step process, which I now advise organizations to employ. (The steps can be useful individually as well.) My process is a complement to Kim and Mauborgne’s “strategy canvas” for coming up with a blue ocean strategy and Christensen’s “jobs to be done” framework for finding disruptions. About a dozen companies are now adopting it, including two major consumer-packaged-goods firms, a high-end fashion company, and a manufacturer of optical cables.
Unlike design thinking and crowdsourcing, which rely on the art of ideation, my process is rooted in the art of criticism. Instead of soliciting early input from customers and other outsiders, it engages a company’s own employees. It helps them articulate their individual visions and then compare and discuss their contrasting perspectives in order to distill them into a handful of even better proposals. The views of outsiders are sought only at the end.
The Art of Criticism
Whether for products, services, processes, or business models, two levels of innovation are possible: improvements and new directions.
Improvements are novel solutions that better satisfy existing definitions of value. Whether incremental or radical, they address problems that are already widely recognized in the marketplace. Consider residential thermostats. Most companies in this business assume that their main value lies in enabling people to better control the temperature in their homes. Innovation has therefore focused on creating digital thermostats with novel features such as touchscreen displays with multiple menus, day-of-the-week schedules, different room settings, and programmable fans.
In contrast, new directions arise from reinterpreting the problems worth addressing. They redefine what customers value. In November 2011 Nest Labs came up with a brand-new value proposition for thermostats: to help people be comfortable in their homes without having to fuss with the temperature. Its founders understood that the complexity and unpredictability of family life in America had made it nearly impossible to program a thermostat with a regular schedule. In addition, they saw that the technology of sensors and mobile phones had matured to the point where temperatures could be set through simple interactions, which would appeal to people fed up with complicated interfaces.
Users switch the thermostat on or off with its straightforward rotary interface or a smartphone; the device requires no programming. Equipped with sensors that detect whether people are in the house, it automatically adjusts the temperature to save energy when no one is home. In a few days, the thermostat learns the habits of the household and takes care of the temperature settings itself. The software platform is open, allowing third parties to build complements for the thermostat. Although Nest does not release sales figures, it claims to have sold millions of its thermostats, which retail for about $210 to $250. In 2014 Google bought the company for $3.2 billion.
It is highly unlikely that Nest’s geeky founders, who initially had vague ambitions to create a “smart home,” would have pursued their thermostat if they had relied on currently popular methods of innovation. Generating lots of ideas works well for improvements, but it doesn’t help to spot new directions. If companies don’t change the lens through which they assess ideas, they won’t be able to identify the outsiders they should seek, know what questions to ask them, and recognize their most valuable input. As a result, they will tend to pick customers and other outsiders who support their current directions and dismiss ideas that lie off the beaten path. Indeed, most of the ideas incorporated in the Nest thermostat were already known to the industry, but none of the existing players recognized their potential.
In order to find and exploit the opportunities made possible by big changes in technology or society, we need to explicitly question existing assumptions about what is good or valuable and what is not—and then, through reflection, come up with a new lens to examine innovation ideas. Such questioning and reflection characterize the art of criticism.
“Criticism” comes from the Greek word krino, which means “able to judge, value, interpret.” Criticism need not be negative; in this context it involves surfacing different perspectives, highlighting their contrasts, and synthesizing them into a bold new vision. This is a significant departure from the ideation processes of the past decade, which treat criticism as undesirable—something that stifles creativity. Whereas ideation suggests deferring judgment, the art of criticism innovates through judgment.