The Exploring Innovation Style

“Let’s question our assumptions and see what’s possible.”

Some people prefer to explore uncharted territory. They thrive on the unknown and unpredictable, often coming up with ideas from totally new assumptions and perspectives. They emphasize the Exploring style. People who prefer this style dislike routine and are enthusiastic in the face of uncertainty. They often try to re-open the idea-generation process, even when others might be trying to come to a decision. They tend to add a sense of adventure to any project and open up the potential for dramatic breakthroughs.

When John Gooden was Vice President of Design and Marketing for Design West Incorporated, he used the Exploring style to develop a new automobile seat for General Motors:

"There was a particular ergonomic sports seat that had moving side-bolsters. These bolsters had the ability to “hug” the body, if you want that confined feeling for sports-car-like maneuvering. We were having a tremendous problem where a piece of plastic came together with a piece of material. If that area moved, children could possibly trap their hands. We were really at our wits end to come up with an idea."

To give himself time to think more clearly, John went sailing. He was pondering the problem, seeking some new insight. Suddenly…

"A California gray whale came up beside the boat and took a big breath. That's an awesome experience. And at the time that it surfaced, I glanced over and there was the belly of this whale with this fluted structure on it, expanding and contracting. And I said to myself, “That’s it!” We can have the side-bolsters move in the same fashion as the belly of the whale."

An Exploring Moment in History

Elias Howe spent years trying to invent a machine that could sew. He sacrificed everything he owned as he tried out many new ideas. Nothing worked. One evening in 1846, when he was about to give up his search, he fell asleep and dreamed of his creditors dressed as savages coming to avenge his failure. They were attacking him with spears. But in his dream the spears had holes in their points. This image changed everything he had assumed in his designs, and he awoke knowing that he had found a solution to making a sewing machine work.

A Famous Exploring Innovation

In 1965, a Yale student named Frederick W. Smith articulated an idea in a junior-year class project. The concept, the teacher told him, was interesting but not feasible. He got a "C" for the project.

Smith's concept was guaranteed overnight package delivery. At the heart of his idea was a hub-and-spokes system. Smith suggested that a freight-forwarding company could draw a circle around an airport, which would act as a hub; a number of truck routes inside the circle would be the spokes. All day, trucks would gather parcels from businesses that wanted the packages sent quickly someplace else in the United States. At the end of the day, all spokes would lead back to one airplane. The truck drivers and pilot would fill the airplane with the packages; the loaded plane would fly to a bigger hub somewhere in the center of the country - Memphis would be perfect. Airplane routes to Memphis - from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami - would be the big spokes. The planes would be emptied in Memphis, the packages sorted, and the planes reloaded with packages destined for only their city, to which they would return. Before the sun was up, that city's fleet of trucks would deliver the packages inside the circle and gather another batch for delivery the next day.

Between 1971 and 1975, Smith fell $30 million in debt, was indicted for bank fraud, got sued by his own family and saw his investors replace him. Yet with incredible vision, persistence, leadership and courage, he was able to build FedEx into the premier carrier of high-priority goods in the marketplace and the standard setter for the industry it established. (For more on the fascinating story of Smith and Federal Express, check out Breakthroughs! by P. Ranganath Nayak and John M. Ketteringham)

Smith challenged several assumptions with his idea, including: packages should be sent using the shortest possible route between two points and customers were not interested in overnight delivery.

Exploring At a Glance

How does this style support innovation?

  • By seeking new and novel breakthroughs
  • By challenging assumptions to uncover new perspectives
  • By being enthusiastic in the face of uncertainty

How can this style hinder innovation?

  • By taking risks where they “leap before they look”
  • By being too preoccupied with “speculative” ideas rather than focusing on results
  • By frequently changing their perspectives and direction
  • By not leveraging the value of work that has already been done

What key questions does this style ask to stimulate new ideas?

  • How can we turn conventional wisdom upside down?
  • What would be radically new and different?
  • What is a metaphor for this situation that prompts new, unusual ideas?
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