A QUESTION OF Competitive It’s about framing big, high altitude questions that pack a healthy disrespect for present reality, that dare to challenge the fundamental nature of the categories, businesses, behaviors, experiences and companies around which we’re asked to innovate, and that ultimately define a path to positive market disruption. Advantage What becomes clear in a long march across dozens of companies and categories is that a staggering amount of competitive advantage lies in the definition of fundamentally new questions around which to engage the marketplace, and mobilize your team’s pursuit of breakthrough innovation. We’re not talking about clever new probing techniques or the familiar ‘what if…’ questions—which are, in truth, just potential answers with question marks at the end—it’s much more fundamental and strategic. In our experience, transformational questions have superhero powers. They materially change the conversation, both inside a company and with the customers it’s out to serve. They challenge underlying assumptions that have, artificially and unhelpfully, come to be mistaken over time for immovable category truths. And above all, these transformational questions spawn transformational answers—breakthrough innovations and the new competitive advantage that comes with them.
A QUESTION OF PERSPECTIVE Before we go deeper on the pursuit of those transformational questions, let’s understand the innovator’s life without them. Assume you and your competitors are chasing the same consumers. So, sensibly enough, at the outset of your innovation program, you round up a bunch of them, and probe what they like and love, dislike and barely tolerate about their current category experience. You tease out their pain points and unfulfilled aspirations and conjure sparkling new offerings that do away with the bad and usher in the good. It works for a while, but eventually you find the thrill is gone. Everyone in your category, it turns out, is rallying around the same questions, and chasing marginal builds on the prior answers. Some better, some worse—but subtle differences do not a breakthrough growth engine make. You’re left relying on fleeting advantages in technology and design rather than sustainable, highly differentiated and scalable strategic and conceptual market-making platforms. In the long run, the commonality of questions becomes strategic gravity, begetting narrowly clustered innovations across a competitive set. Of course finding new answers to age-old questions isn’t a bad thing. You’ll occasionally pluck a tasty helping of low hanging fruit that way, and that kind of innovation has an important role to play in a balanced innovation portfolio. But, as a general rule, a same-questions approach will tend to make future growth a function of execution rather than strategic differentiation, which can lead to margin erosion and sleepless nights for your CFO. Enter the transformational question.