How do you know if you’ve found the killer application for your innovation? The one that will propel it into the stratosphere of commercial success? Surprisingly, it may not be what you originally designed it for!
Unexpected Applications. Many innovations start life in one domain, but find bigger success in another. Most of us know Post-It’s started life as a failed adhesive, but did you know that the hugely successful Dyson Vacuum reapplied air filtration systems used in sawmills? Even Play-Doh was originally formulated as a wall cleaner, used to remove soot caused by domestic fireplaces.
The list of technologies that excel in domains for which they were not originally envisaged is long, and varied. For example, Biomimicry takes innovation developed by nature and reapplies it to human needs, and is one of the most promising sources of inspiration for innovators today. Large corporations, like my previous employer, P&G, are also adept at evolving existing innovations to create new businesses. Surfactants, which had their origins in soap, morphed into laundry detergents, shampoos, and dishwashing detergents, while chelating technology originally used in laundry detergents found its way into toothpaste and even Actinol, a pharmaceutical that treats osteoporosis. Likewise, at P&G, Connect & Develop, a process for bringing innovation in from outside of the company, was responsible for about half of our innovation.
In many of these examples, the leap of a technology from one domain to another was purely serendipitous, albeit aided by an open mind alert for opportunity. However, if we are to be more successful at biomimicry, technology transfer, and finding killer applications for our technologies, we need to make this process as systematic as possible.
Innovation Psychology. In order to do this, we must see links between problems and inventions that are useful, but not always obvious. Psychology, and thinking about thinking can help us do this in a number of ways. Firstly, it tells us that analogy is the mental process we typically use to make these types of connections. It is how we ‘peel back the onion’, and see deep structural similarities between superficially dissimilar systems. The good news is that we are all naturals at analogy, but there are also ways to make it happen more easily:
- Use vocabulary that is not specific to our domain. Dyson did this when he reframed vacuuming from filtration to separation. At the time, more efficient filtration was the holy grail of vacuum cleaner technology, and was what everyone was working on. Reframing to the slightly more abstract function of ‘separation’ enabled Dyson to make a game changing connection between vacuuming and the cyclonic separation used in the sawmill. The magic with this approach is to be just abstract enough. Too specific, and it locks us into our current domain. Too general, and connections are generally not useful.
- Describe our system or problem in terms that are broadly used elsewhere. The term chain reaction is an example of this. It concisely describes a complex system that explains anything from an Ebola outbreak to a forest fire, nuclear reactor melt down, or word of mouth marketing. Another is collateral damage, which describes the unwanted side effects of chemotherapy, military operations, or homeland security. These terms are useful, because they help reveal the basic underlying structure of our system, and also enable connections between superficially different, but structurally similar problems.
- A third way is to represent problems or systems visually, by creating relational maps that describe what an invention does, like the simple representational map for vacuuming shown below.
So by using more general descriptions into our inventions or problem, looking for structural rather than superficial similarities, and constantly looking for reapplication opportunities for our inventions, we can increase chance of making breakthrough connections, and finding surprising killer applications.
Written by Pete Foley, a PhD chemist and 25-year P&G veteran who applied Behavioral Science to product design, innovation, and brand communication. This included fascinating collaborations with thought leaders in fields such as innovation science, behavioral economics, consumer psychology, linguistics and perceptual science. Pete is now an independent consultant. To learn more, check out Mind Matters.