Whitespace vs. Rightspace: How Quest-led Innovation Finds Right Space for Breakthrough Innovation

by Ty Montague

Whitespace vs. Rightspace: How Quest-led Innovation Finds Right Space for Breakthrough InnovationWhitespace and Rightspace

Whitespace is a term we hear a lot in innovation. The best innovation takes advantage of the “whitespace” that exists outside of our core business. By successfully innovating in this whitespace we expand the footprint of our company, open up a new market or create a new line of business. That all sounds great in theory, but when you take a harder look at it, the whitespace outside of the core of most businesses is a big place – limitless, in fact.  Intuitively we understand that some of the innovation opportunities in this whitespace make sense for our business, and that some are just too far away from our core business and core skillsets to be plausible for us.

But how do you locate the right whitespace for you?  How do you focus your innovation efforts on whitespace that is most likely to allow you to successfully expand your business without over-reaching and stretching beyond your capabilities? There are a group of companies today that have a secret weapon that helps them do this. Ultimately, the answer comes down to how they define their business.

Pepsi: a vertical view

The traditional way to define your business is based on a vertical commercial category – you run a food company, or a shoe company, or an accounting company. Companies that define their business in this way tend to innovate within their vertical and so their innovation tends to be incremental. Pepsi is a soft drink company.  They look for the whitespace outside of their current soft drink offering, but within the soft drink vertical. So we see innovation like caffeine free, cherry, diet Pepsi. Or we see launches of new variants like Crystal Pepsi. Pepsi also launches new drinks outside of the Pepsi brand and even outside of carbonated drinks – take Brisk for example. But ultimately innovation in these companies stays pretty close to home base, and acquisition often plays a big part of their innovation strategy. They wait for someone else to discover a new patch of whitespace in their vertical and then they hoover up the new company to capture that value. In Pepsi’s case, Gatorade, Naked Juice and SOBE are examples.


But there is a different kind of company loose in the world today, one that defines its business in a new and better way – a way that allows them to home in on whitespace that more traditionally defined companies might not even see. These companies define themselves themselves not by business vertical, but by their core mission – these companies define their business around something I call a Quest.

A Quest is a higher purpose as a business – a goal they are pursuing to make some big, positive change in the world. A good Quest should transcend commercial success – becoming the biggest widget maker in the widget making category is a fine goal.  But it’s not a Quest.  Good Quests have generosity to them. They seek to right a wrong or to improve peoples lives in a tangible way. “Bring humanity back to air travel” if you are JetBlue. Or to “deliver happiness” if you are Amazon.

A good Quest does more than define your purpose, it becomes the engine that drives your innovation strategy. Rather than innovating in a product or service vertical, companies with a Quest use it to shine a light on their whitespace. The products and services that result do double duty. They are both great products and services themselves, but they are also expressions of the Quest – they telegraph the companies higher purpose in the world.

Since a Quest tends to encompass multiple business verticals, innovation in Quest-led businesses tends to cross multiple categories.

Red Bull: beyond the category

A well-known example would be Red Bull. Red Bull makes a popular energy drink, and could easily define themselves as a soft drink company that is competing with Coke and Pepsi. Instead, they define themselves as an action sports lifestyle company on a Quest to help all of us live our lives to the absolute extreme. The drink they sell is designed to help the Red Bull faithful pursue that lifestyle. But as Red Bull followed their Quest, and used it to define their whitespace, it quickly led them outside the drinks category. Rather than create more drinks, they have created entirely new ways for Red Bull fans to follow and participate in the Red Bull Quest. For instance they have created entirely new adrenaline sports – the Red Bull Air Races.

They have created massive global participatory events like Flugtag. They have created long form films like The Art of Flight .  And short form films like The Ridge. Soft drink company?  Yes. Action Sports company? Yes. Media company? Yes. So what business is that again? The business of helping more of us live our lives to the absolute extreme. Less well known examples abound today.

Sweet Green is an example of a company that could easily define themselves as a fast casual restaurant.  Instead they are following the Quest of connecting people through food.  If you have a moment watch the video here to see the beginnings of the remarkable places where that Quest is taking them.

Sweet Green is an example of a company that could easily define themselves as a fast casual restaurant. Instead they are following the Quest of connecting people through food. If you have a moment watch the video here to see the beginnings of the remarkable places where that Quest is taking them.

Companies that pursue this Quest–led innovation strategy are often a little hard to describe in conventional business terms.

Nike, Google, TOMS and Tesla

Pursuing the Quest of equipping and inspiring athletes everywhere, Nike makes shoes but also has the number one health app in the world. Based on the quest of organizing the worlds information and making is accessible and useful, Google began as a search company. Today, search is only one way they do this. Google Maps, Google Earth and more radical innovation like Google Glass, Driverless Cars and Project Loon all stem from this root Quest.

TOMS began delivering on the quest of making giving a bigger part of getting in the shoe category. Today TOMS isn’t a shoe company, they are a one-for-one shoe, eyeglass, and coffee company.

Pursuing the quest of upending the hydrocarbon economy, Tesla has started out in the car business. But they are rapidly expanding to becoming a clean energy infrastructure company – a company building the supporting infrastructure to enable an entirely new clean mobility ecosystem and coincidentally to allow many others to innovate on top of that infrastructure, which is why they recently opened up all of their patents.

Where does that take them next?  Would an electric airplane be logical?  Electric scooters? Quest says yes. More interestingly perhaps, their Quest would also lead Tesla outside of transportation to clean power generation. Windfarms?  Tidal power generation? Solar arrays? Quest says yes.

Because these companies are following a Quest and not confining themselves to a traditional business vertical, quest-led innovation tends to feel much less incremental.

Quest led innovators often surprise us by innovating outside of their present business vertical, so their innovation feels more dramatic, and iconic. In a world connected by social media this creates other benefits. They get talked about more in social media, and the conversations tend to be more positive.

This means they often spend much less on paid media promotion of their products. On average two thirds less. Because of this, there is evidence that Quest-led companies are actually more efficient businesses.  At my company, co:collective, we have done a study that suggests that Quest led businesses (StoryDoing® companies in our language) are actually more efficient businesses.

Defining Higher Purpose

Your company can do this too. Begin by defining your higher purpose.  What is the Quest you wish to pursue as a business?  What big positive change do you want to see in the world?  How do your current products express that Quest? If you are like most companies, some will, and some won’t. That’s just fine – that’s your new Quest helping you evaluate your current product lineup and telling you what to emphasize and what to de-emphasize. But it is also beginning to point the way to your whitespace. Now – where would that Quest take you?

Suddenly you have a whitespace spotting scope that allows you to see much more clearly the whitespace that is exactly right for you. And you will often find that it seems logical, if not inevitable that your company is going to grow in that direction.  You will also find that you know who you need to hire, who to partner with or acquire. Having a clear and compelling Quest as a business can have many benefits.

Helping you to define and then capitalize on your whitespace is just the beginning.

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Ty Montague is CEO and co-founder of co:collective. The home of StoryDoing, co: is a strategy and innovation company that works with leadership teams to conceive and execute innovation in the customer experience. He’s also the author of True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business. Reach him @tmontague.

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