A lot of new product ideas arrive at Spark No. 9’s doorstep looking for demand validation. Some are spectacular; others need a little TLC before they are ready for testing.

Which made us wonder: is there a right way to generate new business ideas? 

Breakthroughs can arrive via dogged research and analysis (Convoy), by serendipitous mistakes (the Post-It at 3M) or through intense focus on a widely experienced problem (Stripe). But there appears to be a difference between the approaches that result in incremental improvements and those that drive big disruptive change. What can be learned about ideation?


Step one for many innovators: research. Mother-in-law research still happens, but most new product idea generators we encounter are disciplined in how they approach ideation, methodically talking to users and often using frameworks like “jobs to be done” to identify insights.

But is talking to customers and developing insights about their needs sufficient to generate big disruptive breakthroughs? For the most part, it’s an analytical starting point, useful but insufficient. Moving beyond incremental product ideas requires something more.

Spending time with potential customers can identify unmet needs, but it can also reinforce preconceptions about solutions. How do you get out of your own head?


Airbnb started when unemployed roommates Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia rented out airbeds on their floor. If they had adhered to existing models in the hospitality industry, the next step—a linear one—would have been to open a bed & breakfast.

Instead, they imagined what became a B&B platform—a stroke of insight that they skip over when telling the creation story.

“They’ve oversimplified it to tell the story hundreds of times, but it really was purely accidental—as are many of the most interesting kinds of inventions,” said Leigh Gallagher, author of The Airbnb Story. 

Other mega-successes like Shopify extrapolated from solving a tiny problem—better ecommerce software to run an online snowboard shop—to a platform. The catalyst: other ecommerce entrepreneurs saw Snowdevil’s ecommerce capability and asked to use it. Huh.

Airbnb and Shopify suggest that part of breakthrough ideation is simply mucking about—putting something half-baked out there and observing responses. The tricky part? Insight about the observed behavior.


What a lot of breakthrough ideation has in common: seeing things differently. Creating perspective, particularly if you are an aspiring innovator with tenure in an incumbent organization, is a tall order. And it’s even taller if you need to bring others along. Here are a few tactics: 

Unorthodox teams. There is evidence that interdisciplinary teams are often more creative. It seems to be better documented in medicine than other industries, where there is growing respect for a “beginner’s mindset” in solving big problems.

Third parties. “Outsiders often find it easier than insiders do to connect disparate thoughts, because they come to the table with fewer preconceptions,” write Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux, and Michael Wade in Bring Your Breakthrough Ideas to Life. Certainly there are plenty of innovation firms that can fill this need.

Venn diagrams. Combining two concepts is a time-honored way of pitching a movie (“It’s ET-meets-Power of the Dog!”). But Venn diagrams can be a source of breakthrough ideas, too. It’s another way to achieve cross-functional thinking, and while it may feel nonsensical at first (fast-casual restaurants + health-club memberships, the US Constitution + insurance), it can lead to real inspiration.

Big questions. Like “what if we no longer did what we do?"

Industry analysis. Even oligopolies have vulnerabilities. Deep analysis can identify chinks in the armor and show a pathway for innovation. This appears to be happening in fintech, and Facebook is arguably a victim of others’ careful analysis of its Achilles heel.

Experimentation. If you can’t muck around like Airbnb and Shopify, there are other ways to experiment, like yours truly. You know where to find us.

Ask your customers. Back to Airbnb. CEO Chesky just asks his Twitter followers for ideas–and they deliver.

In sum: it’s likely that all the information you need is lying around nearby. It’s just waiting for careful observation and a giant dose of insight.

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