Strategic Imagination – How External Thought Leaders Drive Innovation

Most leaders and organizations are limited by an internally-focused world view

Companies often struggle to see beyond their own world view.  Historically-biased data, inwardly-focused thinking, established mindsets, and outmoded innovation practices conspire to limit an organization’s ability to envision new possibilities for growth.  Innovation teams usually have no problem coming up with ideas, though the results of traditional “brainstorming sessions” are often disappointing – short-term ideas rooted in past and present thinking, that assume the battle must be joined under today’s competitive rules.  In many cases, the same people are generating the same pet ideas and there’s no fresh thinking.

Organizations usually have no shortage of data (especially historical statistics and consumer research), but what they often lack is real insights that spark the imagination.  While company employees bring essential subject-matter expertise, the downside is that they are encumbered by long-held operating assumptions and orthodoxies of an internally-biased world view.

Of course, it is necessary to continue building the core business and to “make the numbers”, through “incremental” product iterations and line extensions.  That said, forward-looking companies intentionally balance this short-term focus with a future orientation that seeks out bigger opportunities that will drive mid- and longer-term growth.  In other words, they recognize the critical need to innovate strategically.

“Getting out of the box” starts by looking over the sides 

‘Getting out of the box’ is a very tired and overused expression, but the fact is: new thinking and breakthrough growth don’t happen if the same employees look at the same data and have the same discussions every day.  Forward-looking organizations have a fierce curiosity and a thirst to engage with fresh perspectives from the outside.  They actively seek ways to stretch beyond their inbuilt set of experiences, orthodoxies, historical practices, “blind spots”, technology capabilities, and business boundaries. They understand that looking at the world differently is the only way to dramatically increase their ability to identify truly new opportunities that will drive breakthrough growth.

So, how can we infuse fresh thinking?  Who do we bring in to the mix?  Inspirational, external thinkers and provocateurs are an essential catalyst for teams that seek breakthrough innovation and that want to push themselves to look beyond the obvious answers.  In one of our core methodologies we refer to them as “Thought Leaders.”

There are several ways to involve them.  These include: formal or informal, one-on-one conversations with industry or technology experts; creating “open innovation” networks; establishing an ongoing Innovation Advisory Board; conducting “immersion visits” with industry-leading companies; and bringing them together in a specialized forum to address specific business or technology challenges.

External Thought Leaders push boundaries

Thought Leader Innovation Session is a process that may have several stated goals, such as: to identify potential opportunities and growth platforms; to conceive of new ventures, business models or products and services; to address organizational knowledge gaps or “blind spots”; to identify emerging trends; to foster new business partnerships; to create momentum around a stalled initiative; or to build internal alignment that accelerates decision-making and facilitates implementation.

During the process, a cross-functional team comprised of an organization’s own subject-matter experts and innovators is brought face-to-face with external “Thought Leaders” to explore, speculate and collaborate in a shirt-sleeves working environment.

Sourced from many different walks of life these forward-looking Thought Leaders are experts in their respective fields.  They can be specialist practitioners, executives, potential partners, venture capitalists, industry analysts/ observers, academics, entrepreneurs, consultants or “cultural creatives”.

It’s a process  not an event

The Thought Leader Innovation Session is the “main event” of an iterative, divergent-to-convergent innovation process that includes several steps: scoping (defining the focus and desired outcomes), planning, session definition (identifying a provocative set of “focal areas” that address the business issue/need), Thought Leader recruiting, selection and coaching, the session itself, opportunity prioritization and development, roadmapping, and implementation planning.

Conducted in parallel with these steps is a series of consumer/customer insight, strategic thinking and market immersion activities that enable the innovation team (and other stakeholders) to fully participate in the session itself.

Combining visionary thinking with pragmatism, the Thought Leader Innovation Session itself is a one-day, carefully orchestrated meeting.  The session involves the Thought Leaders and key stakeholders from the company.   Bringing them all together at once is significantly more effective than sequential, one-on-one interactions with because it exploits the interactions between all participants, and delivers new insights and a common experience for the company stakeholders.  Inspiration comes when the Thought Leaders vociferously debate their different views on the future, and when they identify connections and opportunities at the intersections of their respective worlds.  The session consists of a fast-paced series of non-traditional interactions that enable Thought Leaders and the innovation team to quickly move beyond static thinking and to take a future-oriented perspective that identifies breakthrough possibilities

Tap into emerging trends to find future foresight

While most companies use trends as part of their planning process the focus is often on the analysis of historical, established trends.  But hindsight is woefully inadequate for future planning in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world.  It is essential to identify emerging trends – and to capitalize on them ahead of the competition.

By combining facts, right-brained intuition, speculation and “possibility thinking” an organization can develop “Industry Foresight” – an understanding of emerging marketplace drivers, non-obvious trends and possible dislocations.  With Strategic Foresight an organization puts itself in a position to create a visionary and proprietary view of the future, and to ask: “What does this mean for us?”  This underlies the development of pragmatic growth strategies to pursue potential “white spaces” and other untapped opportunities.

Organizations typically keep a relatively narrow set of trends on their radar screen – those directly and obviously related to their industry.  But to innovate at a more imaginative and strategic level a more expansive view is required – one that also looks at trends that lie outside an organization’s normal field of view.

Strategic Innovation requires an organization to look at the intersections of emerging trends in many areas (social, demographic, technological, geographical, environmental, political, regulatory and competitive) – as well as others that might seem extraneous at first sight.

A visionary food and beverage company, for example, would look well beyond historical consumption data, gaps in its product lineup, or a snapshot of today’s competitive product landscape, and would also monitor the early growth stages of alternative distribution channels, novel business models, emerging technologies that originate outside (but could impact) their world, or try to imagine the marketing communications possibilities driven by the proliferation of consumer electronics and the emergence of social networks.

Stretch your thinking at the intersections of adjacent (and non-adjacent) worlds

By juxtaposing our conventional frame of reference with other worlds beyond our immediate field of view, it is possible to envision entirely new possibilities and opportunities for growth.  The trick is to ask: How can we go well beyond our own internal expertise and drive our “strategic imagination” to new heights?  “What can we learn and apply from “adjacent or non-adjacent worlds” such as fashion, sports, entertainment, cosmetics or high tech?  For example, what could we learn about interface design from Apple; about rapid new product innovation from Mattel; about launching new brands from Virgin; or about communicating to women consumers from Avon?  What non-obvious opportunities can be revealed at the intersections of their worlds and ours?

Combining the Thought Leader approach with other methodologies

Engaging external Thought Leaders in the innovation process is very flexible – and extremely effective in combination with other methodologies.  Whether using external experts to stimulate the work of internal innovation teams or using them to create advisory boards or innovation councils, the goal is the same:  infuse an external perspective into the mix to push boundaries and help the organization generate new growth opportunities that leapfrog the market, and the competition.

Want to learn more? For an overview of the importance of taking an outside-in approach to innovation, view Soren Kaplan’s interview on The Power of Taking an External Perspective on the Intuit Innovator’s Exchange: