How Can You Innovate Better with the 3 Questions Startups Always Ask?

by Marta Dominguez

Innovation is closely related to uncertainty and how executives manage it. Startups know it very well hence their push for agile ways of work in their teams. But… –and this is the question I get asked now and then by executives- Does the Startup strategy on innovation apply, in full or in part, to established organizations and business in other industries?

Although some strategy consultants may fancy the idea of every company in the world to get back to their startup age, I find it preposterous as well as unnecessary. Companies and startups have different and undeniable responsibilities towards the operation of their respective businesses. It is in managing uncertainty where the old guys can learn valuable and interesting lessons from the young crew.

Here go three magic holy grails about innovation that startups are good at

One, Where is it that you feel PAIN?

Let´s play a simple game. I bet you have a mobile phone in your pocket and are a heavy user of your smartphone. Now go and mentally count the number of times that companies in the mobile industry have presented you a product that would turn your mobile into a credit card substitute. What did you get? At least five, right? Ten or more -if you stretch the span of time maybe to the last decade.

How well do you think those products were able to match the question, what sort of customer problem does this innovation solve? If you read this from Europe or USA I guarantee a big none. However the most interesting thing happens if you are in Africa. There, population with simpler mobile phones and greater live difficulties than we have has access to payment through mobile. Local African companies have been able to make the innovation question right. With an African feature phone you can pay for medicines and buy articles from a small catalogue. Amazing, isn´t it?

The most useful lesson startups can teach you is how to make good questions. The top important thing –they will eagerly tell you- is to focus on which are the customer pains. Because any innovation must be fired in that direction.

Two, Innovation METRICS

Is anyone out there doing the same innovative thing as you?

Expect a big YES. Maths tells it all. Not only will there be someone who is putting time and effort, bets are that you will easily find several projects, working independent in parallel.

Statistics are there to teach executives about humbleness and grandness. I advise you take competition as a company prescription for you to wearing mandatory glasses for “lateral sight”.

And three, BETTER questions and LESS brainstorming

I am a big defender of using better questions rather than brainstorming. It may sound contrary to the think-broad innovation process but it is all a question of probabilities –maths again!

A better question helps you focus the work effort of a team by making only those ideas that are closer to what customers may want –a term known in the startup world as product-market fit. You may think about it as a method to play about on the uncertainty of future product demand. Which is just strategy made more intelligent.

Generally speaking startups are quite skilled at questioning about customer needs that are yet unknown. They do a better screening job based on customer pain because those ideas test the best for commercial viability.

I have work as consultant for dozens of startups over the last ten years. I have also studied the source of innovation in many other successful and unsuccessful startups. What I have gathered as practical wisdom -It´s not a scientific research- is that most innovation opportunities are sourced in one of three big and straight questions.

How can I make this existing product BETTER?

How can I make this customer problem EASIER for my customer?

Or How can I make this solution MORE AFFORDABLE for my customer?

My final piece of advice on startup thinking: Be aware that no single question guarantees revolutionary ideas in the first answer. On the contrary, prepare yourself and your team to bearing with poor answers too. But I can promise you that other better and good ideas will follow the initial ones. It is all part of the startup thinking model. It just needs some training, practice, and yes, application.

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Marta Domínguez is a startup advisor, strategy consultant, innovation thinker. Innovation educator. I avoid using strategy and innovation in the same sentence as it sounds cheap. Owner of Startup Innovation Bootcamp on slack. Founder of i-Thread consulting. Reach me at twitter: @marta_dominguez

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