Aiming to Innovate? Look Beyond the Usual Suspects

When you look for inspiration from the same sources all the time, the ideas you generate can feel stale. Perhaps the solution involves uncovering fresh ideas in new places.

Sometimes the best solutions can surface in unexpected places. One of my favorite recent examples of this involves a company that publishes The Onion-style parody news stories. The Hard Times riffs on punk music culture and video games in particular, hiring a lot of freelancers to help dish out those hilarious headlines.

Managing a freelance-heavy operation is challenging—both the creative work and the business aspects, including handling payments. There have been regulatory efforts to stop nonpayment, complete with successful advocacy efforts led by groups such as the Freelancers Union. This may sound surprising, but people working in the gig economy take not getting paid on time really seriously.

So where does The Hard Times come into play? It built a way to put the article online, pay the writer, and create tax records in one fell swoop—all by hitting the publish button. It’s a simple, ingenious solution, and the company is currently working on launching the automation tool for other online publications under the name OutVoice.

The founder of both firms, Matt Saincome, says his endeavor was inspired, in part, by a bad experience during his own early freelance days, in which a improperly written check bounced, causing a fee on his bank account that cost more than he was paid to write the story.

Doing that work “was a privilege, and just being near my coworkers was helping me learn and advance my skills as a journalist,” Saincome wrote in a blog post. “But when it came to invoicing, the only thing I was learning was that the entire system was broken.”

Certainly, the concept may not directly apply to most associations. (But hey, a lot of freelancers and contract workers have their fingerprints in the association space these days, so who knows?) Nonetheless, the idea underlines something really important to me: The best, broadest, and most applicable ideas often work because they translate well, even from unlikely sources.

And this is why it’s so important to observe what’s happening in the broader world and pull those ideas in. A 2014 study titled “Integrating Problem Solvers from Analogous Markets in New Product Ideation” lays out the basic concept: Often, good ideas in one field may make sense for another, even if the industries otherwise have nothing in common.

The study focused on the use of safety equipment in three fields, two that seem somewhat in the same wheelhouse (roofing and carpentry) and one that has nothing to do with the others (in-line skating). What these sectors have in common is that they share similar challenges with safety equipment. The research showed that when experts from different but “analogous” fields look at a problem, they can often surface novel and unexpected solutions.

“Our findings demonstrate that there is indeed an ‘analogous market effect’: Solutions provided by problem solvers from analogous markets show substantially higher levels of novelty,” the report states. “Specifically, we find that calling in problem solvers from an analogous market (instead of the target market) increases the novelty of solutions provided for a given target market problem by almost two-thirds of the gains from asking lead users instead of average problem solvers.”

(One downside is that, because of the participants’ lack of familiarity with other fields, the solutions often aren’t immediately applicable, but it gives innovators something to aim for.)

In an article from Harvard Business Review discussing their research, authors Marion Poetz (from Copenhagen Business School), Nikolaus Franke, and Martin Schreier (both from the Vienna University of Economics and Business) write that if you’re looking for a solution to a problem within your organization, don’t just look at the idea people in your field—look at the base problem and see if that creates opportunities to dive a little bit deeper into your research.

“Clear away the details and ask yourself: What is the essence of the problem? Then describe it in such a way that potential solvers from analogous markets can connect their knowledge to it,” the researchers write.

This is great advice, but it may not be practical to have your equivalent of in-line skaters looking at protective equipment for carpenters. Sometimes, it’s a matter of keeping a broad horizon and using that to uncover new things.

Once a week or so, I wander through the website Product Hunt, which surfaces new startups and digital projects. It seems to be full of new ideas. But what’s really interesting about it is that it underlines both the benefits of looking outside your field and the pitfalls of not doing so. Some of the new tools that become popular feel like they’ve been directly inspired by other ideas that have shown up on Product Hunt. That’s not to say they’re bad, just that it’s to a degree inevitable. Nonetheless, it highlights the risks of monoculture that can happen when you dip for new ideas from the same well.

Perhaps that’s what I find so refreshing about OutVoice. Its solution comes from looking at a problem differently—even if the source of the solution isn’t the first place that immediately comes to mind.

May all your association’s best ideas feel kinda like that.

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Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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