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The Quest for Provocation

30/04/2013 15:17 BST | Updated 29/06/2013 10:12 BST

It's a fact of life - the same route to work, the same coffee shop, the same issues pilling up in the in-tray - we can't avoid the comfort of the familiar. Without realising it we all get very good at 'pattern thinking' - repeating today what worked yesterday. The history of commerce is piled high with once great businesses that were so focused on their current competencies and investments that they failed to spot the new wave of opportunities, and eventually it drowned them.

This disruption theory is well known to corporate innovators. What is less well known is just how powerful a programme of provocation is - experiences that are designed to deliberately broaden the minds of executives.

The quest for provocation is by definition uncomfortable. It takes our client partners real guts to come on a journey that's designed to challenge the status quo. They need to feel both inspired and a little threatened as a result. Provocation also has a competitive edge. Do you know whether your competitors are working from the same data that you are? Or are they looking in different, more stimulating places and making more connections? Provocation, and the clues, connections, and insights it generates, is fundamental to innovation and competition.

It's impossible to innovate without experiencing discomfort. People involved in the innovation process generally experience anything from mild discomfort to outright panic when they step outside the office to spend time with customers. One of our packaged goods clients was very nervous about the prospect. Faced with a choice between 'student house' and 'couple with two kids' he insisted he didn't want to do the student house--he was afraid they'd be punks or squatters. Imagine his relief when he arrived at his 'couple' house and was greeted by a shaven-headed, tattooed gentleman, a pit bull, and a proudly displayed gun collection.

The lesson here is: Be bold. And remember--you will have paid customers to meet you, so get maximum value from the experience. You don't have to like them, and they don't have to like you.

We need to look beyond the market or category our products and services exist in. We need peripheral vision. What's setting the standards for our consumers - across a variety of markets, throughout their day or wherever they are? For me, iTunes gives me control to curate my music and has created the sentiment by which I subconsciously judge other offers, whether it is how a bank looks after my money, or the way an energy company bills me.

Innovation is fermented at the margins with the angry, the ambivalent, the rejecters, and the 'do it yourselfers'. To some extent, provocation comes from getting inside the heads of the very people who have rejected you--or at least those who have an extreme or downright strange relationship with your brand or category. So for a new anti-dandruff shampoo for men we met a bald man who bought large amounts of anti-dandruff shampoo, a woman who claimed she left her boyfriend because of his dandruff, the unfortunate boyfriend (interviewed in a separate location), several men proud of never washing their hair, they claimed, due to cost, several herbal remedy doctors who claimed to be able to treat dandruff and a mum who mixed a magic potion anti-dandruff for her husband and neighbors.

Bet you're thinking that these projects look kind of fun? They are, but they need to be edgy. No point just talking to someone who likes you, it's much more provocative to meet someone who really hates you, who rejects you or uses your product or service in a way you'd never intended. Although it may be unpleasant listening to these views, you will find within them the seeds of something useful. I'm not saying that you need to wear a bulletproof vest to innovate but you do need to step outside your comfort zone.

Matt Kingdon is the founder of innovation company ?What If! and the author of 'The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organisations'