Author Archives: Paul Sloane

About Paul Sloane

Speaker, author and consultant on lateral thinking and innovation topics. Paul is the author of many books including The Leader's Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills published by Kogan-Page and Think Like an Innovator published by Pearson. He speaks and run workshops on lateral thinking and innovation topics.

Borrow an Idea from a Different Field

Borrow an Idea from a Different Field

GUEST POST from Paul Sloane

Sometimes the best way to innovate is to borrow someone else’s idea and apply it in your business. A successful innovation does not have to be an all-new invention. It just has to be something useful which is new to your business. Maybe everyone in Singapore is doing it but you are the first in Holland; maybe every consulting firm does it but yours is the first doctors’ surgery to try it; maybe everyone in IT knows about this but no-one in hairdressing; maybe lots of youngsters communicate this way but you are the first city councillor to do so.

Rob McEwen

Rob McEwen bought a Canadian gold mine which was in decline. Production of gold had been falling. At a computer conference he happened to hear about the Linux operating system and how its success was based on its open source principle – anyone could see any of the code. Thousands of programmers around the world analyse, extend and develop Linux code. He decided to borrow this idea and apply it in the conservative world of gold mining. He published all the data about the mine on the internet and challenged people to predict where to drill for gold. His colleagues thought he was crazy – no-one ever gave away all their mining data. But the internet competition he started, the Goldcorp challenge, was a great success. The winner used sophisticated fractal graphics software to analyse the data and accurately predict where to drill for gold. The output of the mine went up tenfold.

If McEwen had attended a conference about mining he would never have had the trigger of an idea about open source.

Doctors had a problem with hypodermic needles. Patients were afraid of them. Children dreaded them. The pain the needles caused was not intense but it was unpleasant and it dissuaded many people from having important injections. So the doctors asked – who else has this problem? Who else injects into people and has solved this problem. The answer was quickly given. Mosquitoes insert a tiny needle into people and extract blood. They carry the deadly malaria virus. They go about their deadly work without being felt. By studying how the mosquito stings its victims scientists were able to develop a hypodermic needle that patients do not feel.

The scientific study of nature in order to copy its methods is called mimetics. Alexander Graham Bell was a practitioner of mimetics. He copied the workings of the human ear when he invented the telephone. The diaphragm in the ear became the diaphragm in the telephone.

The mobile operator Vodafone uses interesting customer segmentation. Like every other business it segments customers by revenue and margin. But it also segments customers by which ones it can learn the most from. Vodafone identifies the top 20 clients world-wide who are doing the most interesting things with mobile technology. It ensures that senior managers visit these customers and keep abreast of their latest applications and uses. Some of these clients are very small organisations but Vodafone knows that the ideas they can garner here are very valuable. Who are your most innovative clients? Do you monitor and track them. Do you keep them close? Could you borrow some of their great ideas?

The problem you face right now is a problem that someone else has faced and solved. Why not harness their ideas?

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Avoid the Addition Bias

Avoid the Addition Bias

Guest Post from Paul Sloane

Have you noticed that almost every photo that you take with your camera or mobile phone can be improved by cropping?  As we take away extraneous background details, we bring the subject into clearer view.  The same is true in many other fields – taking things out can seriously improve performance.  But there is a strong human tendency to do the opposite – to add features rather than to subtract – even when subtraction is an easier and better solution.

Nature magazine recently published a paper with the headline – People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes.  The study was carried out by Adams, Converse, Hales and Klotz at the University of Virginia.  Here is an abstract of what they found.

‘We investigated whether people are as likely to consider changes that subtract components from an object, idea or situation as they are to consider changes that add new components. People typically consider a limited number of promising ideas in order to manage the cognitive burden of searching through all possible ideas, but this can lead them to accept adequate solutions without considering potentially superior alternatives. Here we show that people systematically default to searching for additive transformations, and consequently overlook subtractive transformations. Across eight experiments, with different conditions, participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes. Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape and damaging effects on the planet.’

In one experiment, people were asked to change a pattern on a grid of coloured squares so as to make it symmetrical.  Fully 78% chose to add squares even though taking away existing squares was an equally good solution.  In another study, participants were asked to improve an essay – 80% added material while only 16% cut words out.  We see something similar in the many books which could have been much more concise. They would have benefited from pruning, yet the author and editor chose to add rather than subtract.

It is generally agreed that the tax codes in most countries (and certainly in the USA and UK) are far too complex and provide many provisions and loopholes that can be exploited by clever accountants.  A simplified tax code would be easier to administer and would collect more revenue.  Yet each new finance minister tends to add new clauses and tax breaks rather than eliminating them.

Innovation efforts tend to follow similar lines.  When people are asked for ideas on how to improve a product or service, they typically add more features.  But many products suffer from feature bloat today – which makes them unwieldy and complex to use.  It is rare for people to suggest slimming down a product by eliminating little-used functions.  I dare say that your mobile device is overloaded with apps that are rarely used.

The next time you run a meeting to improve efficiency, processes, methods, products or services start by asking, ‘What can we take away?’  Crop the photo to make it better.

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