As we mentioned last week, one of the challenges of innovation is the belief that a good, creative idea has to be completely new. But it doesn’t. We call inspiration from other ideas Combining Parallels: look to what’s been done in the past, or even current ideas, and use them as a starting point.
Looking beyond your immediate environment can be the greatest source of parallels. Because each step moves progressively further away from your company and market, we refer to these steps as “generations.”
- First Generation: Parallels Within Your Company. Parallels within your company can be surprisingly diverse, especially if you look to the other divisions, regions, and functions. Often companies have proprietary research that can be leveraged. For example, Tracy Tolbert, executive vice president of global sales at Xerox, benefits from first generation parallels frequently. Xerox is almost 100 different businesses all around the world and Tolbert’s sales organization pulls from the variety of experiences and ideas in all of those businesses. “It gives us some advantage as we create solutions for customers, because we have the ability to lean on different organizations and create solutions that may have an element of a prior solution from another business within Xerox. We’re able to come up with some pretty creative solutions.”
- Second Generation: Parallels Within Your Industry. Parallels within your industry include what your competitors have done or are doing. It’s likely that your competitors have addressed the strategy challenge or customer situation you’re dealing with at some point too. But remember, you don’t want to replicate their solution; you’re looking for parts of their solution that can be combined with other puzzle pieces to create a new solution.
- Third Generation: Parallels in Companies or Industries with Similar Business Models. The third generation of parallels looks at businesses outside your direct competitors, but those that have a similar way of generating revenue. Imagine a software company that struggled with customer renewals. To solve the problem, it might look for parallels in other contract-based businesses – like telecommunications or insurance companies who depend upon high customer revenue retention – to examine how they build customer loyalty programs.
- Fourth Generation: Parallels in Companies with Dissimilar Business Models. Parallels in companies with dissimilar business models extends the reach one step further and forces a sales organization to look at solutions it may never have considered. The software sales team would now look at companies that need to retain customers, but without a contract. Sources might include airlines, hotels, grocery store chains, credit cards, or even magazines. For example, grocery stores may seem completely unlike software companies on the surface and may not even be considered by the sales team. While grocery stores have a considerably different business model, many use loyalty cards that offer discounts to frequent shoppers. By examining the similarities between your business and these businesses, you may find additional parallels that will contribute to your solution.
- Fifth Generation: Parallels Outside of Business. By the time you reach the fifth generation of parallels, you’re about as far from home as you can get. Once you’ve looked for similarities within every corner of the business world, it’s time to think beyond business. At this point the software sales team might ask, “What happens outside of business to keep people loyal to something?” Examples may include sports teams that create fan bases; non-profit organizations that rely on sponsorships from loyal donors year after year; even certain aspects of family or cultural allegiance can lend some clues. How do groups stay loyal, decade after decade, to a particular tradition?
By the fifth generation, at the bottom of the tree diagram above, you’ll have a pool full of parallels. The ideas will also increase in divergence the further down the tree you travel. Both the abundance and the range of ideas create a plethora of components. Some combinations won’t make sense, but others, can turn into real solutions.
Last week I discussed combining parallel ideas. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.