By Arthur B VanGundy

It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.”
—James Thurber

New product development uses a three-phase problem solving process common to many disciplines.

These typically are:

  1. research— analyzing and defining a problem,
  2. generating concepts, and
  3. testing, selling and implementing.

The research phase frequently is referred to as the “Fuzzy Front End,” since uncertainty exists about the nature of a product category and / or market. Generating concepts assumes that the Fuzzy Front End has been clarified sufficiently to produce testable product concepts.

This stage also could be viewed as the “Muddled Middle,” since poor or inadequate problem clarification often results in disjointed searches for product concepts. The third phase might be described as the “Battled Back End” because struggles often exist in selecting concepts, managing the interface between marketing and R&D, and in persuading others to prototype or launch a product.

In the Beginning…

“I don’t know where to begin,” said Alice. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, gravely, “and go till you come to the end; then stop.”
—Lewis Carroll

Asking the right questions up front helps create frames for the stimuli needed to develop and design ideation techniques. The questions are the tough part; getting the ideas is relatively easy.

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”
—T. S. Eliot

My talk today will focus on the beginning or Fuzzy Front End—framing new product opportunities. The key to generating marketable products lies in how we handle this framing. It isn’t generating ideas that is important; it is, instead, framing an opportunity or problem by generating “discovery” questions to shed light on what we want to do. We then are more likely to address the “correct” problem which, in turn, helps lead us directly to the “Big Ideas” we want.

Albert Einstein supposedly was asked what he would do if he had one hour to save the world from nuclear destruction. He said (paraphrased), “I would spend the first 55 minutes analyzing and understanding the problem and the next five minutes generating ideas.” Breakthrough innovations don’t occur by accident; they must be deliberately “plotted” and cleverly crafted through understanding of a brand, product, or business segment.

Incremental vs. Quantum Product Change

Many opportunities exist for innovation in new product development. The trick is how to find them. The most important ones occur when we recognize the perceptual frames or boxes in which we operate. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are, any road will get you there.” You first must know what box you are in before you can move around in it or move to another one.

Every product category or platform represents a separate box. But each box is more—it is a set of values, emotions, and attributes that define a perceptual reality about a brand. Once you’ve identified a box, you will have to move around inside of it to keep fresh perspectives. That is, you have to ask questions and decide how to improve it (e.g., with line extensions) and when to move to another box or category (e.g., to enter new business segments).

Questions are the engines we use to move within and between boxes. They determine if we will achieve incremental or quantum (breakthrough) changes. Incremental changes, such as line extensions, are relatively easy to generate with a few simple questions. Quantum changes, in contrast, require more profound questions about core issues and assumptions.

Solving the “Right” Problem

“The hardest assumption to challenge is the one you don’t even know you’re making.”
—Douglas Adams

“The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.”
—Anthony Jay

Contrary to what most of us have been taught, “real-life” problems aren’t presented to us neatly packaged. We usually have to pull them out of complicated, “fuzzy” situations. Jumping right in and generating solutions is the worst thing to do when there is major uncertainty.

The “problem” with that last statement is that we often don’t even know when we are unclear about a problem. The result frequently is that we solve the “wrong” problem correctly. As Ian Mitroff notes, it is “…far better to generate an approximate solution to the right problem than an exact solution to the wrong problem!”

An exact solution to the wrong problem keeps you on a certain, unproductive path; an approximate solution to the right problem at least gives you some hope for resolution.

“Next to being right in the world, the best of all things is to be clearly
and definitely wrong.”
—T. H. Huxley

How do you know when you have the “right” problem? Well, you can’t be absolutely certain. However, you can increase the odds by simply challenging all assumptions about a problem—especially what are “assumed” to be the most obvious ones.

Einstein is famous for noting, “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” Don’t accept “conventional” wisdom as the truth. Einstein didn’t. He constantly questioned the theories of his day.

The truth is not dependent on the number of observers. However, the truth in any situation can be approximated by asking questions which force us to consider new perspectives. The more questions we ask, the closer we are to solving the “right” problem.

Think Within and Between Boxes (but NOT Outside)

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable
one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all
progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
—George Bernard Shaw

The real difficulty in creative thinking and innovation is NOT learning how to “Think Outside the Box.” By nature, we all think within boxes. In fact, we would be lost without our boxes. That’s how it should be since our boxes provide the frames of reference we need to understand and deal with our perceptual worlds.

If we think “outside the box,” then we probably aren’t thinking very well. Without a box, we have no “anchors” to use in gauging and understanding reality. Moreover, without a perceptual box, we are more likely to solve the wrong problem correctly. Perceptual boxes define boundaries and help target our problem solving actions.

I can illustrate this point with the pie exercise. You are to cut a pie into eight pieces using three cuts. I later modified the instructions to “three or fewer cuts.” (That addition to the statement provides more options, so I will use it here.)

I found this exercise in a book which told the reader to turn to page 266 for the “correct solution.” Most people fail the first time they try to solve this problem. They draw three straight lines in a number of ways, none of which results in eight pieces.
This is thinking within “a” box—not just a general thinking box, but the one used specifically for this problem. To solve this problem, you can use “box-in-box” thinking or “box-to-box” thinking or both.

 

Box in Box

 

First, you can ask questions regarding the three straight lines. For instance: Do the lines have to be cut from the top down? Do the lines really have to be straight?
If the answers to these questions are no, then they might lead to potential solutions. The “correct” solution in the book was to cut the pie into fourths and then draw a circle in the center of the pie—three cuts and eight pieces (thus invalidating the faulty assumptions of straight lines).

Or, you could cut the pie into fourths and then slice it horizontally. Or, you could cut the pie in half, stack the halves, cut these in half, and then stack and cut them again (2 x 2 x 2 = 8). Solutions like these all are within the same box, i.e., solutions involving cutting the pie using straight lines. I call this Box-in-Box (BiB) thinking, since each solution falls within the same box—the “straight-line thinking” box.

 

box to boxA second way to approach this problem is to momentarily step out of the “straight-line box” (Box #1) and shift your perspective to other possible boxes.

I call this, Box-to-Box (BtB) thinking—the act of moving from one frame of reference (box) to another in an entirely different category (much like the difference between line extensions and new business categories).

This movement is accomplished the same way as with BiB thinking: Asking questions. However, shifting outside of one box and ending up in another typically requires questions that test more basic assumptions. For instance: “Why does the pie need to be cut with a knife?” “Why must it be cut with a single-bladed knife?” “What is a cut?

These questions represent a focus on cutting and thus create another box—”outside” the previous box, but now a new perceptual frame. Once the shift is made to this new box (Box #2), BiB thinking resumes. Some solutions with this new box include designing a multi-bladed knife with a handle perpendicular to seven blades—one stamp and eight pieces result. Or, different patterns can be made—without lifting up a single knife blade—which result in eight pieces.

Thus, instead of concentrating on how to think outside the box, more important issues are: 1) awareness of what box you are in, 2) how to navigate within it effectively by asking questions, and 3) knowing when and how to move to another box altogether.

Thinking takes place within perceptual frames so we might as well accept that. We think “within” these boxes in the sense that we are constrained by a set of implicit and explicit assumptions. At any given time, we are in a box when we perceive a problem to exist. When we move from one box to another, the new box then provides a different perspective.

We don’t need to move continuously to other boxes if we are happy with our current one. For instance, if our current competitive advantage is satisfactory, no change is needed. However, such advantage can be short-lived, especially in rapidly changing markets characterized by sustained innovation. When change is needed (often defined in terms of “breakthrough” thinking), moving to another box assumes considerable importance. Here’s another example using the classic “Castle” problem:

A castle has been under siege for several months and is down to its last two sacks of grain. The castle’s defenders consume one sack of grain per day. To solve it, acknowledge the current box (Box #1). For example, you might say, “How might we make the grain last longer?” They also might seek other perspectives within this box—such as, “How might we decide to share the remaining grain fairly?” Both definitions are within the same box involving how to use the existing grain. Thus, the reformulated problems represent BiB thinking.

A second choice is temporarily to move the problem perspective to a new box involving “Box-to-Box” (BtB) thinking. That is, reframe the problem and create an entirely different perspective: Instead of defining the problem in terms of food rationing, consider the ultimate objective. To do this, they might ask, “Why do we want the grain to last?”

One answer would be “To defeat the enemy.” The problem then becomes: “How might we defeat the enemy?” (Box #2). Another answer to the why question might be: “To demoralize the enemy?” The problem then is: “How might we demoralize the enemy?” Answers to this question might create the perception that they have unlimited food.

In this case, the castle’s defenders decide to demoralize the enemy by tossing one of the remaining sacks over the wall. This demonstrates an attitude of confidence and self-sufficiency—e.g., “We have food to waste!” Of course, such a decision involves some risk. However, there isn’t much to lose since the situation would be resolved in one day less than had they chosen to keep the sack. On the other hand, if the enemy “buys” this solution, the problem may be solved.

Here’s another example from my friend Chris Barlow. Suppose you have lost the keys to your car. In your first box (Box #1), you define the problem as, “How might I find my keys?” or “How might I replace my lost keys?” This box focuses on the keys—just as the focus in line extensions is on extending a brand instead of creating a new one.

You ask some questions and define the situation in terms of starting the car. Thus, “How might I start the car without my original key?” or “How might I start my car without any key?” represent Box #2 thinking. That is because the focus now is on starting the car and not finding the keys.

Finally, a third and potentially more productive box (Box #3) would be: “How might I find transportation to my house?” In each case, you work within a specific box until you decide to move to another, potentially more productive one.

The boxes in which we place ourselves become our reality. We choose to be there and that is all we know at the time. However, we also can choose to transform our perceptions and create new boxes. As I noted before, it sometimes is OK to stay within a current box, but maybe not for very long. It’s a lot easier to maintain and nourish brand equity with line extensions when you are in your comfort zone.

The danger is that your competition may move to other boxes while you remain behind. Moving to a new box entails serious risks in terms of reduced short-term margins and shareholder value to name only two. It’s a delicate balancing game that requires honest assessments of market demand and volatility against risk tolerance, stakeholder pressures, corporate strategy, and other variables.

Thinking Between the Boxes in the “Real World”

“Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created.” —Albert Einstein

Swiss Watches. One of the most famous “real world” examples of BtB thinking was when Swiss watch makers were challenged by Timex and the Japanese. Although the Swiss had a “lock” on luxury distribution channels, Timex exploited a mass market via drug stores. Then, Japanese manufacturers started making electronic quartz watches in the late 1960s. They made a conscious decision to move from the box of mechanical watches, with their gears and springs, to an entirely new technology. How did Swiss watchmakers of these mechanical boxes respond? They didn’t. They had been making the world’s finest watches for over 600 years. Why should they change? The answer became evident in 1981, however, when they lost 40% of market share and had to eliminate 50,000 of 62,000 jobs!! The Japanese chose not to be limited by the Swiss makers’ box or frame of reference. Instead, they made a transition to a new box.

McDonald’s. A more recent example is McDonalds branding strategy. With a somewhat insulated environment, “Mickey Ds” is not the ideal candidate for BtB thinking. They have strong brand equity as the world’s largest franchise operation. However, according to Adrian J. Slywotzky, a partner at Corporate Decisions, Inc., they need to change their strategic question. That is, they need to shift the focus from “How can we sell more hamburgers?” to “What does our brand allow us to consider selling to our customers? (Business Week, March 9, 1998). In other words, change the emphasis from products (Box #1) to customers (Box #2).

Binney & Smith. The maker of Crayolas is an almost 100-year old company undergoing some significant changes. It is creating new recipes (BiB thinking) in response to competitive pressures, as well as recent disclosures regarding trace amounts of asbestos. They are not staying within that box, however. Instead, they have decidced to “color outside the lines.” According to company president, Mark Schwab, Binney & Smith now is shifting its focus as a manufacturer of crayons (Box #1) and related products to a clearinghouse of ideas for teachers and parents (Box #2). The ideas, of course, would involve using their products for children’s arts and crafts products, especially in schools.

The need to move from BiB to BtB thinking is relative to each corporation’s strategic branding philosophy. Moreover, the direction of the shift will vary by organization. One organization will benefit from a completely different box than another. For instance, one company might create a stronger branding presence by emphasizing products and another image. Two prominent examples of this phenomenon are Microsoft and Levi’s.

Microsoft. Microsoft appears to be shifting to a new branding box. Their traditional box focusses on selling products. Many of these are typical of any corporation. For instance, “How might we sell more products” “How might we become more efficient and effective in producing our products?” Most notable has been their slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” which focuses on specific products. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft now has shifted its focus to selling itself and building brand equity based on image (Box #2). In this “image box,” Microsoft now asks such questions as: “How might we present ourselves as more approachable, credible, and caring about our customers?”

Levi’s. In contrast to Microsoft, Levi’s decided to make a similar BtB move, but instead is making a transition from image to products. Business Week (March 13, 2000) reported that Levi’s CEO, Phillip A. Marineau, is trying to shift the focus from selling more clothes (Box #1)) to increasing the perceived relevance of their product lines (their new branding strategy involving image which, in this case, is Box #2).

All great brands break new ground by redefining a business category. Apple Computer and Nike, for instance, both carved out unique identifiers in the computer and athletic shoe categories. They redefined their areas for the individual—Apple made computers more accessible and easier to use and Nike challenged individuals to do their best. And they accomplished these goals with BtB thinking.

How to Phrase Problem Statements

Any new product project begins with a project statement. The quality of such statements determines how well you achieve your overall objectives. Thus, it is important to know how to phrase a problem statement productively.

“Good” problem statements are relatively broad and have a beginning stem (e.g., “How might we…?”), a verb (e.g., “improve”), and an object or goal (e.g., “home safety”). Good problem statements should NOT contain: (a) multiple objectives or (b) specific criteria.

You only can focus on one objective at a time. The human mind has enough trouble focussing on one objective when generating ideas. It is even more limited when two or more objectives are involved. When you want to deal with multiple objectives, state each one as a separate problem.

Perhaps the most important “No No” in problem statements is including criteria. For instance, do NOT use a statement such as: “How might we improve home safety with products having a 22% ROI, a payback in 2.5 years, and first year sales of $25 million?” Again, the mind can process only so much information at the same time. Creative ideas are less likely to flow when you also have to concentrate on constraints. Get all the ideas out first and then evaluate them against the criteria. You can consider the criteria; just don’t worry about them while generating ideas.

The Fuzzy Front End

“The essence of genius is knowing what to overlook.” —William James

“You know you’ve achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” —Antoine de Saint Exupery

Working within our boxes and shifting our perceptions to new ones involves using the front end of basic problem solving. This Fuzzy Front End, in turn, is a process involving “fuzz removal.” Fuzz removal helps increase problem understanding and clears away misconceptions that might restrict us within a current box or in moving to another. Thus, the desired outcome is reached when “…you have nothing more to take away.” (This is similar to how many artists, such as Betty Edwards, draw using the concept of “negative space”—the areas outside the object being drawn.)

The secret to fuzz removal is to structure the process and test as many assumptions as possible by asking questions. I have attempted to structure this front end by dividing it into two overlapping stages: 1) Sensing and Feeling, and 2) Thinking and Knowing. They correspond to more traditional stages of analyzing and defining problems. However, I am using these stages specifically to provide clarity and understanding about fuzzy situations—perhaps the most important activities at the beginning of the new product development process.

Sensing and Feeling

Although problems can be self-created or “given” to us (e.g., by a boss or coworker), they can be resolved the same way. However, the way we respond emotionally may vary considerably and affect our ability to deal with problems. “Fuzzy” situations, by their very nature, are ambiguous and often unpredictable. Those two factors alone contribute to considerable fuzziness. And we all respond differently to ambiguity and with different emotional reactions. We also have more to lose with some problems than others. Add up all this and it’s clear that problem solving is not always textbook-easy.

Sensing. The first act of Sensing and Feeling is to experience awareness of a problem—i.e., sense the existence of a problem. You have a problem when you perceive a gap between some current and desired state. For instance, if brand awareness of a three-year-old product is 13% and you want it to be 70%, then you’ve got a problem! Once you acknowledge this gap, you will need to decide if you “own” this problem, if you are motivated to solve it, and if you have the resources to do so.

Feeling. If the answers are “yes” to these questions, you next must assess your emotional reactions. When sensing a problem, you usually have an emotional reaction along with it that contributes to your fuzziness. To deal with your problem, assess your reaction objectively. Otherwise, you won’t “own” the problem and it will be tougher to resolve. As 12th century mystic, writer, and Abbess Hildegard of Bingen noted:

We cannot live in a world that is not our own. In a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.

Our emotional reactions to problems can be categorized as passion, fear, or a combination of both. These reactions typically are not considered together in most problem-solving textbooks. However, they can be critical to “removing fuzz” from problems.

Passion, in this case, refers to motivation and the confidence and trust we have in ourselves to resolve a problem. Fear often is an initially negative reaction to a problem that can make gaining clarity difficult. It also can prevent us from experiencing problems at our deepest, most honest emotional levels.

Passion and fear operate at two levels: (1) functional and (2) dysfunctional. Functional passion exists when we have optimal levels of motivation and confidence to solve problems. Dysfunctional passion occurs when we are “too” motivated and become over-zealous. The two levels of fear operate much the same. Functional fear can be empowering at low levels if it alerts us to difficulties such as threats to brand equity. Dysfunctional fear (aka “analysis paralysis”) obviously is the more dangerous and the one more likely to create sustained “fuzziness.”

A recent story in The Wall Street Journal illustrates how potentially dysfunctional fear can be transformed into functional fear. Polaroid’s I-Zone camera became its best selling camera last December—its first real big hit since the 1970s. However, fear almost prevented it from being launched. Some Polaroid engineers worried that the low-quality pictures would hurt the company’s reputation (i.e., dilute the brand). As noted in the article, “…Polaroid executives were so concerned about the company’s reputation that they made a concerted effort to distinguish the brand as distinct from Polaroid.” If they had allowed this fear to take over, they might have scrubbed the project. Instead they chose to create a unique selling proposition and market niche: Teenagers who like stickers, seeing themselves, and who aren’t overly concerned about picture quality. Thus, functional fear prevailed and Polaroid was able to move to another thinking box.

It is possible to experience both passion and fear in reaction to a problem. The important thing is your ability to separate the two and tune into what you experience—to know and understand your authentic feelings. It may be “just business,” but your life history is tied up in everything you do—even though you may not be consciously aware of it. If you can’t overcome dysfunctional passions and fears, then you are more likely to remain in the Sensing and Feeling stage. Thinking and Knowing, the next stage, requires clear-headed reasoning and analysis. Dysfunctional passions and fears restrict your ability to shift perspectives and move to a new box. Thus, passion and fear can be either the greatest enemies or friends of BiB and BtB thinking.

To sense and feel a problem is to function within a particular thinking box. What we sense and feel define our perceptual frames. Thus, the engineers working on Polaroid’s I-Zone camera were in a box involving the perceived quality of Polaroid products. Their initial fear led them to believe the product would dilute the brand. However, they then changed their thinking and moved to a new box. This process of moving out of one box and into another represents the Thinking and Knowing stage of my model.

Thinking and Knowing

“In this day and age, if you are not confused, you are not thinking clearly.”
—Burt Nanus

“The utmost extent of man’s knowledge, is to know that he knows nothing.”
—Joseph Addison

This stage helps gather general background information (Thinking) and provides clarity about a specific problem (Knowing). Thinking immerses you in the general problem area (e.g., product category or business segment). Knowing guides you to achieve new perspectives and to select the “best” problem statement.

Thinking involves data mining (analyzing) and asking background questions to improve problem understanding. Knowing encourages sudden insight by testing assumptions which, in turn, can spark new perspectives, new problem statements. These statements can be within the original box or they can lead to new boxes.

Thinking: Data Mining. The first part of thinking involves gathering as much data as possible—total problem immersion. Data mining is the time to dig in and see what you can find. Learn as much as you can about the product category. This is a database for understanding your initial objective as well as suggesting potential avenues for new product concepts. Market research, trend analysis, scenario analysis, cultural anthropology, and empathetic design all can be used to understand a problem.

Not all breakthrough ideas come from these sources, however. Rely on intuition and what you experience as relevant. Assess the relevance of new technologies. Many breakthrough products and technology came about not because of market research, but because of the BtB thinking of an innovative individual or group. The telephone, submarine, and xerography—just to name three—never would have been invented had they relied on market-driven data.

Thinking: Questioning. In addition to the traditional data sources discussed above, valuable information also can be obtained by asking general background questions. They can help uncover information not gathered from data mining. Defer judgment and ask as many questions about the product as possible. Each question and answer provides triggers for potential solutions. Ask even obvious questions with obvious answers. Go into a “questioning frenzy,” if you will.

To help trigger questions, use the results of your problem analysis and prompts such as “Who? What? Where? When? and How? For instance, here are some general back-ground questions:

What does our company do?
What do we want to do in the future?
What do we want to do differently?
Where are we positioned in the minds of our customers?
How would we like to be positioned?
How do our customers benefit from our products or services?
When would it be best for us to move to another box?
Who are our customers?
What values are associated with our brands?
How consistently do we transmit these values?
Who would we like to have as customers?
What markets would we like to segment?
What are the components of our brand equity?
What extensions would be best for us to explore?
What is our brand equity?
How do we know that?
What is our brand awareness?
Should we broaden or narrow our brand?
Where do we want to be in one, three, five years?
If anything were possible, what would we do?
Why do our customers like us?
When don’t our customers like us?
What do we like about our competition?
What do our competitors’ customers like about them?
What do our competitors’ customers like and dislike about us?
Who has achieved the positive results we want?
How are they doing that?
How can we do that?
Who is doing something well in our industry or another?
What can we borrow from them (e.g., learnings, tools, approaches)?

Answering these types of questions should reduce problem fuzz. In some cases, new definitions or even solutions may pop out. If so, you already are in the Knowing phase. Sudden clarity, no matter how slight, means you may see your problem with new eyes.

Knowing. To “know” a problem is to frame it in a box. The first box we create is the “given” or “presented” problem. When we become aware of this box, we can stay within it or move to another. Thus, knowing involves reframing a problem within an initial box (BiB thinking), moving to other boxes (BtB), or some combination.

Suppose the initial problem is: “How might we improve our lawnmower?” To stay within a box ask, “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “How?” Then, use the answers to suggest new statements within the box. For instance, “What is involved in using a lawnmower?” or “How is our lawnmower used?” These questions might be answered as follows: pushed, pulled, lifted, trim sidewalks, cut wet grass, pull start, gasoline and oil, etc. These answers might lead to such BiB reformulations as: “How might we make our lawnmowers easier to push?” “How might we prevent accidental starting?” “How might we make lawnmowers easier to start?”

To move to new boxes and create new growth platforms, ask “Why…?” or “What else can it do?” Thus, “Why do we want to improve our lawnmowers?” An answer to this question might be, “To cut grass better.” This answer, in turn, could suggest a new box such as, “How might we remove grass?” Or, asking “What else can it do?” might result in a lawnmower that also functions as a motorized wheel chair.

After arriving in a new box, you can stay within it by repeating BiB questioning or move to a different box.

Thinking and Knowing steps can be summarized as follows:

  1. State the problem
  2. Thinking—Data Mining: Gather background information
  3. Thinking—Questioning: Generate and answer general questions
  4. Knowing—Box-in-Box: Restate the problem within the category (Ask, “Who? What? Where? When? How?”)
  5. Knowing—Box-to-Box: Move to new categories by asking “Why…?” of the original problem, or “What else can it/we do?”
  6. If desired, repeat “Knowing—Box-in-Box.”
  7. If desired, repeat “Knowing—Box-to-Box.”

Here’s an example of these steps based on a recent client of mine in the consumer products business (To maintain confidentiality, I have altered the facts somewhat):

  1. State the problem: “How might we improve smoke detectors?”
  2. Thinking—Data Mining: Research indicated relatively high aided- and unaided-brand awareness across a variety of psycho-graphics.
  3. Thinking—Questioning: Where are we positioned in the minds of our customers? How would we like to be positioned? How do our customers benefit from our products or services?
  4. Knowing—Box-in-Box: What could we improve? Where could it be improved? What could be combined? New problem statements: “How might our detectors sense smoke more reliably?” “How might we warn people of smoke more effectively?”
  5. Knowing—Box-to-Box: Why do we want to improve smoke detectors? Answer: To make homes safer. Redefinition: “How might we make homes safer?”
    [Note that this broadens the original problem of improving smoke detectors and is framed to explore a broader range of product categories.] “What else could a smoke detector do?” (e.g., detect carbon monoxide)
  6. Repeat Knowing—Box-in-Box: What could be safer in homes? When are homes unsafe? What causes homes to be unsafe? Who causes homes to be unsafe? How do people improvise to improve home safety? These questions might spark new statements or ideas such as a moisture detector in the basement or a warning sound when a child opens a basement door.
  7. Repeat Knowing—Box-to-Box: Ask “Why?” of the new problem statement or ask, “What else might we do?” The client also wanted to expand into other potential markets, so they decided not to limit the project to just home safety. Instead, they targeted possible safety products in other areas. For instance: “How might we improve water and snow skiing safety?” “How might we improve bicycling safety?” “How might we improve automotive safety?”

“When you stop learning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die.”
—Lillian Smith

The Muddled Middle

The Sensing and Feeling and Thinking and Knowing stages prepare you to confront the “Muddled Middle.” Questions during the Fuzzy Front End (FFE) should provide you with the confidence to move on to idea generation. If you were thorough with the FFE, concept generation should be less muddled. As educator and philosopher John Dewey once said, “A well-defined problem is a half-solved one.”

The secret to successful new product idea generation is “stimuli.” Stimuli are words and phrases that help trigger ideas.

They can be problem-related words or they can be the ideas of yourself or others. Whenever you free associate, for example, you use each previous thought as a stimulus. Stimuli come in two varieties: related and unrelated. Related stimuli have some direct connection to a product, platform, consumer, or similar topics. Unrelated stimuli are used to force the mind away from the problem and trigger free associations which then can be related back to the problem in the form of concepts. The focus of this talk is on related stimuli, so I will restrict myself to that category.

A major source of related stimuli are the answers to the questions during the Thinking and Knowing phase.

Idea generation techniques use these stimuli in different combinations to spark ideas. I’ve written about these techniques since the late 1970s and first spoke on them at PDMA in the early 1980s. Here are some examples of how to use stimuli to “set up” idea generation techniques. I’ll use the problem, “How might we make homes safer with our products?”

1. Random word combinations. A simple way to use stimuli is to select random, two-word combinations from a category and use the word combination to stimulate ideas. For instance, you might list general safety descriptors such as: air bag, circulate, ice, helmet, water, knife, stairs, wind, freeze, glass, wax, electricity, slippery, razor, etc. Next, select two of the words and use them as triggers:

Wind-Glass: Sensor detects high winds and drops screen or shutters to protect window glass
Glass-Wax: Special wax cleans glass and leaves barely-detectable haze to prevent walking into

2. Semantic Intuition. This method was developed in the early 1970s at the Battelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. It involves generating two lists of words, one relating to the product and the other to the end user. Choose one word from each list and use the combination for idea stimulation. For the home safety problem, list words describing home safety: glass, lock, slippery, shock, fall, break, lighting, dark, toxic fire. Next, generate safety-related words describing consumers at home: cautious, insecure, sick, children, elderly, careless, disabled, burglar, dog, alarm, fear. Finally, generate ideas using combinations:

Shock-Burglar: Consumer activated electrical shock in door handles.
Fire-Children: Alarm senses fire and emits audible instructions to help children evacuate

3. What’s in a name? I developed this technique which is based on creating product names or slogans and then using them as idea stimuli. Here are some sample home safety names followed by potential ideas:

A Matter of Prevention Accidental Security Look Before You Leap In Arms Way Monitor This! Use All Your Senses The Protector Safety to Go An Alarming Development Feudal Families Dependables Private Dector Backup or Die Dangerous L’Raisens Electronic Insurance Watch Your Step All the Trappings Radon Smadon Gas No More Secure Clearance Speed Demon Sounds in the Night Stranger Encounters Traveler’s Advisory There’s Trouble Brewin’ Warming Warning Leak Speak Invisible Visibility Mobile Warnings A Weak Link

Leak Speak: An electronic monitor for gas and water pipe leaks.

Accidental Security: A home monitor that senses the status of all home safety systems and makes needed adjustments for smoke detectors, CO detectors, security systems, etc.

Private Detector: Clothing with built-in sensors for extreme variations in temperature (which then are adjusted) plus a locator transmitter which atomatically activates on command, or after a prescribed time. Useful for children, elderly, and the terminally absent-minded.

Summary and Conclusions

We all think in boxes when solving problems. Boxes provide structure and clarity and guide us in developing solutions. Sometimes, however, we need to move out of a box to create new perspectives. This involves moving to another box, not just “thinking outside the box.” “Out of the Box” thinking is passe. We actually think outside of “a” box whenever we shift our frame of reference from one box to another. Thus, thinking outside “the” box is not important since we always are in a box. Rather, it is important to decide in what box we can best resolve a particular problem.

Finding this box involves asking a series of questions. Such questions expand our thinking realms and force us to consider new viewpoints. As General George S. Patton used to say, “If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking.” Thinking differently requires using questions to identify and then test all assumptions blocking fresh viewpoints. The more questions we ask, the better we understand a problem.

To gain more problem clarity, consider using a two-phase process of Sensing and Feeling and then Thinking and Knowing. Become aware of your problem and evaluate your emotional reactions to it. Emotions can block our ability to see with new eyes. Then, use Thinking and Knowing to help analyze a problem by immersing yourself in it and Knowing to redefine a problem within a box or to move to a new box. For within a box thinking, ask, “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “How?” For box-to-box thinking, ask “Why?” and “What else might we do?”

From the IIR / PDMA Keynote address “Taking the ‘Fuzz’ Out of the Front End of New Product Development”, San Diego, California

Copyright 2000, Arthur B. VanGundy. All rights reserved

Arthur B. VanGundy Ph.D. was Professor of Communication at the University of Oklahoma from 1976 – 2008. He was Board Member at Creative Oklahoma, Inc., and a Leader at Creative Education Foundation.  He wrote over 10 books on creativity and creative problem-solving techniques, including 101 Activities for Teaching Creativity, Idea Power and Getting to Innovation, available on Amazon.

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