Get ready for the next rental phase: Kids

One afternoon at a play date for their children, two stay-at-home moms in Denver, Colorado, made an unexpected observation: “We noticed our kids were more entertained when they were playing with toys from someone else’s house.”

In July, 2009, that observation lead Audrey Zardkoohi and Elizabeth Baumgarten to start My Busy Bucket, a toy rental company for kids. In her recent article for The New Yorker, Patricia Marx describes the service the company provides:

“My Busy Bucket will ship a plastic tub containing two hundred dollar’s worth of books, CDs, DVDs, puzzles, crafts, and toys (mostly wooden ones from Europe) to your offspring, and after twenty-one or thirty days, depending on your plan, a very nice FedEx man will make the the package go bye-bye. The exact assortment of amusements is tailored to the munchkin’s age (newborn to six) and the customer-selected theme (such as dress-up, sports, superheroes, princess/fairy).”

The story of My Busy Bucket emphasizes that anyone can (and should) feel empowered to go out and create new business ventures, products, and services, without drowning in the sea of complexity that makes up typical market research projects. 

Audrey and Elizabeth’s insight didn’t come from several months and tens of thousands of dollars on detailed demographic and psychographic market segmentation, focus groups, and quantitative studies. It came from a former social worker and elementary-school teacher who hated how much they spent on toys that went unused.

You’ll often get much better information—particularly while you’re at the beginning of creating something new—by simply watching what people do and asking a few well-planned questions. 

That’s something you can usually do for free or close to it.

Ideas are the recipes

I love this analogy. Paul Romer, an influential economist at Stanford University, defines ideas as “the recipes we use to rearrange things to create more value and wealth.”

The goal for any organization––no matter what the size––should be to generate a steady stream of new recipes––ideas that alter the trajectory of a business and revive stagnant markets or completely reinvent the competitive dynamics of an industry.

The Surplus Society

If you’re seeking disruptive innovation with a team—or even if you’re doing it alone—you need to identify the assumptions that seem to influence the way insiders (and often outsiders) think about your industry, segment, or category.

In other words, what are the clichés—the widespread, hackneyed beliefs that govern the way people think about and do business in a particular space.

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that clichés are everywhere. (You’ll also notice that, almost by definition, they’ve lost their ingenuity and impact.) In their book Funky Business, authors Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordström refer to the proliferation of business clichés as the surplus society:

“A surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.”

Director Quentin Tarantino cites the film Patriot Games as a typical Hollywood action/drama that uses the conventional “the-hero-is-not-a-murderer” cliché: The reluctant hero, Jack Ryan (played by Harrison Ford) has “every reason to gouge out the eyes and cut off the head of the man who terrorized and tried to kill him, his wife, his children,” says Tarantino.

But how does the villain die? “He falls off the boat and hits his head on the motor. So it’s accidental that the villain gets killed. The important thing is that the hero is not a murderer.”

Tarantino denies this cliché. In his movies, the hero is often a murderer (Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, for example). “I want people to take revenge when revenge comes.”

Often, the more established and obvious the cliché, the greater the impact when it’s challenged. If we eat at a restaurant, for example, we expect to select what we eat from a menu we review when we arrive. If we buy socks, we expect they’ll be sold in pairs that match. We don’t consciously think about these things because “that’s the way they’ve always been.”

This is the paradox of identifying clichés—the most obvious and seemingly natural assumptions are the easiest to ignore. The challenge is to get those tired truisms on the table so you can confront them directly.


*Tarantino quoted in, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Hermann Vaske’s Conversations with the Masters of Advertising (Gestalten Verlag, 2001).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

The attitude, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the enemy of disruptive thinking. It’s the seemingly unbroken aspects of a situation that provide the richest opportunities for innovation. They tend to be the things we ignore, precisely because they don’t change.

It’s more effective to start by identifying something in your business that’s not necessarily a problem, in a place where others wouldn’t expect to look. In other words, think about what usually gets ignored, pay attention to what’s not obvious, and start with things that ain’t broke.


Nothing kills an idea faster than common sense

In his book This Means This, This Means That, Sean Hall asks readers to vote on which of two sentences is the best. “The cat sat on the mat.,” or “The cat sat on the dog’s mat?”

I know that may sound painfully simple, but it illustrates the point beautifully.

If the cat sat on the mat, does anyone really care? Cats sit on mats all the time. But, if the cat decided to curl up on the dog’s mat, well, that’s a different thing. There’s a good chance that if the dog finds out, he’ll have a serious problem with someone messing with his mat. Was the cat trying to provoke the dog? How did the dog react? Is the cat still alive?

Again, it’s a simple example, but it shows how effective some tension can be. 

Tension is at the heart of every compelling story, which makes it rather surprising that it’s usually glaringly absent from most pitch presentations of new ideas.

Most of the ones I’ve dozed—I mean sat—through have been some variation of “Boy meets girl and lives happily ever after” (product meets consumer need and sells happily ever after). Not emotional and not believable.

If you’re going to pique an audience’s interest, you need a major piece of tension that throws the status quo off kilter. In other words, “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins girl back.”

In disruptive pitch terms, “Boy meets girl” is all about empathy. “Boy loses girl” is tension. “Boy wins girl back” is where the audience truly believes in the solution.

A presentation without tension is usually a presentation built solely on common sense, on information the audience already intuitively knows. (The prevalence of common-sense presentations is what probably gave rise to the rather sarcastic definition of a consultant: someone who takes your watch and then tells you what time it is.)

What’s wrong with appealing to what the audience already knows? Plenty.

When people hear something they already know, they tend to tune out. And if there’s one thing you don’t want during your presentation, it’s an audience that has mentally left the room. Your idea has to be something your audience will remember long after you finish your presentation.

It’s all about creating a disturbance, a disruption, between what your audience assumes they’ll get and what you actually give them. Common-sense, tension-free presentations do the opposite: They give the audience exactly what they were expecting.

And that’s the kiss of death.

Disruptive innovation is not a tactic. It's a mindset.

Disruptive innovation is not just about following a process.

It represents a mindset—a rebellious instinct to discard old business clichés and remake the market landscape. An eagerness to deliberately target situations where the competition is complacent and the customer has been consistently overlooked or under-served.

Richard Branson captures the essence of disruptive thinking when he says this:

“One has to passionately believe it is possible to change the industry, to turn it on its head, to make sure that it will never be the same again.”

The potential for reinvention is all around us, and it’s an exciting time to be thinking about how to structure (or restructure) your business, your community, or your life in ways that create new value.

Enjoy the possibilities.


Quote: Richard Branson, The Money Programme, BBC, July 1998.

If you can spot the gap, you can fill the void

It’s important to recognize that observations and insights are not the same thing.

Observations are raw data, the gradual accumulation of research information that you have consciously and carefully recorded—exactly the way you way you saw or heard it, with no interpretation.

Insights are the sudden realizations—sometimes described as “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moments—that happen when you interpret the observations and discover unexpected patterns.

Patterns that reveal gaps between where people are and where they’d ideally like to be—between their current reality and their desires. Rifts between the way something is now and the way people assume it should be.

Wherever there’s tension (observation), there’s a gap. If you can spot the gap (insight), you can fill the void (opportunity).

Revolutionary Goals, Evolutionary Steps

To effectively pitch a disruptive idea, you need to persuade your audience that the changes deliver clear advantages to the people who will use and implement the solution. You need to shift the focus of your audience from the need for disruptive change to the motivation for disruptive change.

To communicate advantages, you should think about who would be eager to initially have and use your solution. The answer lies in the “early adopters.”

Generally speaking, all commercial offerings progress sequentially through four stages: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline. Your focus right now is on the introduction, the official birth of your disruptive idea. Focusing on the introduction stage means that you’ll need to work closely with early adopters to refine and tune your idea before it gets anywhere near a mainstream market.

Why? Because, for a disruptive idea to really take off, you must introduce it to people who have the motivation to appreciate the change in status quo. These people like being part of disruptive change, and if you succeed, they’ll tell the next group, which will pass the word on to the mass market.

In demonstrating why the creators of Napster initially targeted college students, Seth Godin wrote, “They combined the three things necessary for the virus to catch on: fast connection, spare time, and an obsession with new music.”

Keep in mind that early markets are small, so don’t focus your pitch on convincing your audience of how huge a potential market is. Only mainstream markets are huge, and disruptive ideas never get their start in mainstream markets. Promising that is a sure-fire way to lose credibility with your audience.

So, think small and target only early adopters where you can make an impact with what Gary Hamel calls, “revolutionary goals, but evolutionary steps….”

The easiest ideas are the most familiar

It’s always a good tactic to look for examples of how a particular advantage or gap has been addressed in products or services outside of the situation you’re focused on.

Because the problem is that most easily conceived ideas are the most familiar ones, the ones you’ve experienced most often. As a result, more often than not, the first ideas out of people’s mouths are stale clichés—and the fundamental sin of any disruptive idea is for it to be a cliché.

It reminds me of Robert McKee’s advice to would-be film makers:

“Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction…. Too often we close novels or exit theaters bored by an ending that was obvious from the beginning, disgruntled because we’ve seen these cliché scenes and characters too many times before.”

McKee could just as accurately be describing the first ideas to arise from a typical brainstorming session in a corporate boardroom. To break away from cliché-thinking, you need to develop a habit of looking for alternative ideas instead of immediately accepting the most obvious approaches.

Inspiration for alternative ideas often happens in the periphery, in analogous but not necessarily traditionally competitive categories. This is a powerful exercise, because it’s possible that you could take an idea that was developed in a completely unrelated field and directly apply it to your situation.

Think about the Nintendo Wii, a handheld controller that integrates the movements of a player directly into the video game. The inspiration for the motion controller idea didn’t come from looking at what other video consoles were doing; it came from a completely unrelated source: the accelerometer chip that regulates the airbag in your car.

Airbags respond to sudden changes in movement caused by accidents. Nintendo wondered if it would be possible to combine the accelerometer used by airbags with a handheld controller used to play video games. In other words, if you swung the controller like a tennis racket, could a “virtual you” on the screen swing as well?

The goal is to look closely at the unconnected example and figure out how you could apply the entire idea, or part of it, to your needs. As New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman puts it:

“The further we push out the boundaries of knowledge and innovation, the more the next great value breakthroughs—that is, the next new hot-selling products and services—will come from putting together disparate things that you would never think of as going together.”


Note: If you're interested in hearing more ideas on disruptive-thinking, join me at the 2011 FUSE Conference this April 13.

Help people save themselves, from themselves

People often struggle with the tension between wants, which are things they crave in the moment, and shoulds, which are the things they know are good for them in the long term.

In their column for Fast Company magazine, Dan and Chip Heath make the case that “People need help saving themselves from themselves, and that presents a business opportunity.”

They reference the work of Katherine Milkman, a professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Milkman has studied the way customers wrestle with wants and shoulds, and she suggests bundling the two.

For example, the Heath’s write, “exercising is a should, so what if your gym offered to receive your magazine subscriptions? That way, if you wanted to read the new Vanity Fair (a want), you’d have to drop by the gym. Or, what if Blockbuster offered you a free tub of popcorn (a want) for every documentary (a should) that you rented?”

Look for the tension that lies between wants and shoulds. Treat all customers as highly invested in moving from where they are to where they want to be.

Do they need help “saving themselves from themselves” to get there?