Re-Frame To Innovate Your Industry, Your Company And Yourself


Brian Quinn, Contributor

January 29, 2016

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

If that sentiment strikes you as a bit glum, it’s from Arthur Schopenhauer—the leading proponent of pessimism in Western philosophy (from the suitably cheery essay “The Suffering of the World”). But Schopenhauer was spot-on in naming one of the central challenges in innovation leadership: learning to look beyond our habitual view of the world, and see it in ways others are missing. For example, seeing that many people only need occasional access to a car, instead of owning one (Zipcar)—or that waiting in line to pay late fees at a movie rental store is just a needless hassle (Netflix). Seeing the change needed—in your organization, in your industry, in the world—earlier than others, and seizing that change with greater conviction, is the heart of innovation leadership.

Framing (and re-framing) refers to the aperture and angle we set around a problem or opportunity we’re trying to solve—how tightly (or loosely) we draw the boundaries, what we consider in (and out) of scope, the constraints we accept, and so on. Setting the right frame, and re-framing productively over time, is vital because the way we frame a problem largely determines the nature of the solutions we’ll develop.

So how can we learn to set productive frames more regularly and routinely?

There are three horizons I’m going to explore over the next few articles for re-framing: our industry, our organization and ultimately ourselves. Let’s start by exploring how to re-frame the industries we work in.

Re-Frame Your Industry By Examining Its Foundation

Industries are funny constructs. They each have their own rules, language systems, beliefs and habits. Particularly when we spend a lot of our lives working within a single industry, we can become inured to them. We accept that it takes decades to develop a new pharmaceutical, we assume banking consumers care about physical branches, we believe retail consumers will always enjoy shopping for its own sake, and so on. Over time, we can forget the only reason industries exist: to serve a constellation of customer and user needs. Those needs are the only enduring foundation of any industry; the rest is essentially fragile. And when industries start taking those needs as givens, it opens the door to their demise—because they will likely miss or ignore vital shifts in customer needs and behaviors that others have found new ways to serve.

Thirty years ago, my colleagues at Doblin pioneered the use of ethnography and other social sciences in solving business problems. It remains a powerful tool in innovation because it forces us to see the full context our customers. We see how our industry and offerings fit into their full lives—only part of which is spent as “our customer”—and not the other way around. It helps us see the limits and frustrations in the experience we offer them, which often exist well before and after we actually engage them as customers. We spot where they have to hack or cobble together their own solutions, because what our industry provides is simply insufficient (and if you see this behavior, watch out). While such forms of research certainly aren’t new, that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. Immerse yourself and your team in the full lives of your consumers. Resist the urge to ask them about your products, and instead observe what they’re trying to accomplish. You’ll almost certainly see your industry in a new light.

Expand (Or Contract) The Frame

Another exercise is to consider the next larger context of a sector or industry (sometimes called “up-framing”). Eliel Saarinen, an architect and designer, said, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Deep user research, as noted above, is one tool to help us see the broader context—but we can also consider the “traditional” boundaries of our industry and ask if we’re missing the broader problem. Are there seams between our industry or sector and another that we could expand to fill? In taking on a larger portion of the value chain or market, could we not only improve what we deliver to our customers—but also drive additional growth?

For example, the life sciences industry has been generally content for decades to simply create ever more clinically effective molecules. However, as U.S. healthcare continues to cost too much, and adherence remains an intractable challenge, and behavior change is often as important as medication in driving better outcomes, and so on, we expect to see more pharmaceutical firms helping to tackle the larger picture. We expect to see new services that go “beyond the pill” and new value-based pricing models. We’ve already seen strong moves to expand the frame in medical technology—with firms like Medtronic offering catheter lab management services in addition to stents and angioplasty equipment, and Stryker providing comprehensive service with OnSite. Such moves begin shifting the basis of competition in industries—from providing products to providing complete solutions.

However, it’s equally valid to consider tightening the frame—particularly if you think your industry is under- or over-serving particular customer segments, or if the offers and experience it provides are too homogenous and bland. Consider how Curves built a fitness empire in the 1990s and 2000s by focusing on a smaller portion of the gym market: women who wanted a different experience (including less grunting and gawking).

Reversing Conventional Wisdom In An Industry

Another tack is to take the potentially stale rules, behaviors and habits in your industry head-on. Spend some time trying to simply articulate them. The reason articulating them is so important is that we tend to unconsciously accept them; we blow right by them in our operating logic. When we articulate and examine them together, we can start to consider alternatives.

Start by thinking about any time you’ve heard (or said), “That’s just the way our industry works” or “That’s the nature of our market.” For example, that medical appointments rarely start on-time—and that the cost of medical services is often opaque. Or that golf is only played in rounds consisting of 9 or 18 holes. Or that an undergraduate degree generally requires four years to complete.

Then, explore the alternatives—what if it was the opposite? What if that rule or constraint simply ceased to exist? What if customers suddenly refused it? How might your industry work differently then—and what new innovation possibilities could that open up? Top Golf made waves in the golf industry by taking golf off of the traditional course and to the driving range—making play shorter, more flexible, and more social.

Belonging to an industry doesn’t mean you’re bound by it. Taking the time to think about how you could change the boundaries and rules of the industry you participate in is the first step to transforming it.

Also on Forbes:

Advice From The Most Innovative Leaders

This article was written by Brian Quinn from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

There is 1 comment

  • Re-Frame To Innovate Your Industry, Your Compan... - 02/02/2016 09:40
    […] business strategy, future technology, innovation, self development  […]

Great ! Thanks for your subscription !

You will soon receive the first Content Loop Newsletter