HR & Management

How to create new ideas for business from the old

6 min read

12 June 2014

Successful businesses know what they're doing, and they do it well; their products and services match the needs of their customers. But circumstances change, the market alters, new technologies appear; growing businesses face crucial challenges.

At various times the skills that have built the company and kept it going are not enough: that’s when we have to do things differently.

But do we always have to follow or could we lead? How can we get ahead of the game? Where do radical ideas come from?

Hindsight reveals that new ideas come from old ideas, things that already were there but are seen or put together in a new way. Sometimes this appears to have happened almost by chance – serendipity.

Here are a few ways of thinking differently that try to turn serendipity on its head:

1. Re-define your specific problem as a general one 

Is it one of supply and demand; is it about communication; is it delegation? Then look for how someone else (anyone else!) has addressed the issue. Hence we have rugby players learning from ballet because the skills attached to catching a flying ball are similar to catching a flying dancer – they share a general problem, one of spatial awareness and split-second timing.

2. Natural evolution

If you look at the natural world you will find ideas that have been tried and tested in the laboratory of evolution. Velcro® is perhaps the best known but concepts from the Crystal Palace to self-cleaning glass were inspired by natural solutions.

3. Look for non-obvious ideas

For example what’s the worst thing to do if you run a coffee shop? Give away the coffee for free! And yet that is precisely what the Ziferblat cafe in London’s Old Street does: It’s got wi-fi and you can help yourself to tea, coffee, and biscuits but you are charged by the minute – “everything is free, except the time you spend there”.

4. Ask yourself what you can do without

Lots of businesses grow by adding features and services; a bit like a Swiss Army knife, doing lots of things but none of them all that well. How about reversing the process? In retail Argos did pretty well without a showroom: Amazon has gone one step further and doesn’t even have a shop.

5. Deconstruct your business

Ask yourself the two basic questions all innovators should ask: ‘What can we do better?’, ‘What can we do differently?’ When you put it back together it may be transformed. Take one of the most revolutionary ideas of the last thousand years, Gutenberg’s printing with moveable type – paper and ink were a given, but to combine them with fine metal casting from the jewellery trade and the screw press from wine and oil production needed a leap of imagination. Doing better and doing differently.

6. Try combining existing ideas

This will help you to create a concept that is more than the sum of its parts. Think of wireless telegraphy – all the bits contained in Marconi’s ‘magic box’ had been conceived by others; his talent was to combine them to make something new. Spotify is similar – no fundamentally new discoveries, just an original way of putting them together.

7. Have lots of ideas

Play around with them and select the best. Volume is the key, most of them won’t make the cut but we don’t know which until we’ve created enough so it’s important not to judge them too soon.

The next big thing is out there already, a combination of existing elements, hiding in plain sight, waiting to be linked. And when it appears it will probably be such commonsense that we’ll all be amazed that we didn’t think of it. That’s also true for the next small or medium thing, because innovation isn’t all about headlines. For many firms a new marketing strategy, a new way of co-ordinating production and distribution, even a new way of structuring the business is the sort of change that goes unnoticed by the rest of the world but is revolutionary for those involved and gives them the edge.

Idea generation is a trick that can be taught and learned. Like any technique it improves with practice. Ideas are cheap; coming up with lots and selecting the best only costs a little time. Out of quantity we find the quality and that pays off when the real hard work begins, translating ideas into action.

Of new enterprises that fail most do so not because people didn’t try hard enough, not because the finance wasn’t there nor because the marketing wasn’t quite right, although all of those are vital. They fail simply because the original idea just was not good enough. Pre-concept thinking such as that described above will find new ideas and can turn quite-a-good-idea into a game-changing-idea but you need to get rid of your pre-conceptions, relax and give it a go.

Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity at Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the Ingenuity problem-solving process at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. 

Image source