Differentiation: The key to great ideas

There exists two kinds of ideas in the world; both important. The first kind builds on existing ideas. It takes what is already there and extends it – it’s either making it simpler, cheaper, faster, more efficient or bundling many uses into one. These ideas exist all around us, be it in the form of metal straws, inexpensive technology, or the million things that form a part of our everyday life. Without them, the world would likely have been slower, more complex, expensive and cluttered. These ideas form the backbone of the workplace.

Then there are the big bold ideas. The ideas that are the butt of ridicule and skepticism; the ones that draw strength from the frowns and dismissals. However, these are the ideas that push the world forward not in the form of tiny incremental steps but in big bounds. These ideas are much harder to come by, often dismissed in early stages and that much harder to pull through.

Last month, I wrote about backcasting. While backcasting is an important aspect of big ideas, today we’ll discuss another. Differentiation. Differentiation is the common thread that runs through both kinds of ideas referred above.  These ideas are different in how they solve a problem, different in who it serves, etc. Good ideas usually have multiple differences. However, the key to finding the best ideas is to understand which differences lead to long-term competitive advantage. Basing your innovation purely on making something cheaper, or bundling offerings is short term thinking as it’s easy to replicate. The good ideas are these and much more. And the best ideas are so inventive there’s just no comparison.

Here are some differentiating factors to think of:

  • New capability or approach.  A brand new technology or process for doing something is, of course, always promising big-thinking, but it is also rare. A creative approach to solving a problem can be just as impactful. Take for example building manager capability. It is a problem multiple organizations have tried to solve for years but continues to show up in the top priority list of things to solve for. Maybe it is time to throw out everything we know about it and find a brand new approach to a chronic old problem.
  • New application of existing technology. Sometimes taking a technology or approach to solving a problem that is operating in one space and applying it to a whole new area can create something entirely new. It doesn’t have to be technology, it could be an approach too. Think of gamification as a problem to areas we never thought of before. How about taking what we learnt from implementing it in hiring and learning and apply it to performance management, compensation, product needs analysis and more?
  • New customer needs. Until a few months ago, customers didn’t need strategies for managing in a global pandemic. It’s unfortunate to be ideating these things in real time, but looking for inflection points can help get ahead of the curve to identify new needs. Everyone is busy finding ways to engage employees by bumping up the time they spend in front of their screen. Almost every new learning or entertainment form is via videos, calls and the like. Almost everyone would like to cut down on screen time. How about taking the need of staying off screens yet staying connected to form an innovative solution?

There’s a reason why highly differentiated solutions are hard to come by. It is because they are tougher to arrive at. The easier path is to take something that exists and make it cheaper, faster and so on. Maybe there is a reason why HR is moving at the pace it is. Almost every innovation in this space is built on top of another. Maybe it is time to change gears and take innovation up a couple of notches.


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