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For those of us that work in innovation, this next statement will not come as a surprise. Opportunity Exploration is the most mysterious part of the innovation process.

Just think about the words we use in this phase: "exploration,” “finding,” “discovery,” even “space.” None of these words give you a sense of solid ground.

That’s the point. Opportunity Exploration is deliberately about mystery. But the mystery is more likely to come into focus if you’re equipped to respond to the most promising clues along the way—and have the tools to act on the things you ultimately discover.

Questions are a great way to start. As marketers, we need to speculate more. By this I mean we need to ask the questions that rattle around in our brains—both formed and unformed. I like to think of this state as “productively haunted by questions.” Many of my clients hear me talk about it as productive wondering. It’s the idea that we can be so curious and infatuated with a topic we’re working on, that we can’t help but think about it with speculation and wonder. If we think of insights as the driver for Opportunity Spaces, these could be considered proto-insights—or the things that come before insights. These raw materials of speculation eventually lead us to emerging opportunities, which then gain traction with additional insight work to bring them to life. This is truly the intersection where creative chaos and strategic momentum meet.

When working with clients in Opportunity Exploration, I often quote English poet John Keats, who brought up the idea of Negative Capability—a theory about the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science. He supposed that:

"A great thinker is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubt, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

For me, this is crucial. Look, listen, and absorb what you encounter in Opportunity Exploration—but don’t impose your own narrative. That leads to Confabulation, and ultimately false positives for emerging opportunity potential.

When observing, just observe. Don’t go straight to interpretation—try these steps instead:

  1. Sift through all the stimuli and insights you've gathered.
  2. Make some hypotheses that aren’t fully formed but can be explored further.
  3. Gather your team and ask yourselves, “What all could that mean?” Or, “What non-obvious things could that mean?”

How you use what you learned better informs your next steps into ideation. The best stuff you’re ever going to get out of Opportunity Exploration has to be given space to emerge—it shouldn’t be a confirmation of what you already know. If you end with safe, obvious, or “no shit” opportunity spaces, go back and ask additional questions about what something could be. This will hopefully open the playing field of opportunities up wider.

Having the right tools is also critical to create the optimal conditions for opportunities to emerge. It’s not hit-or-miss magic. One of my new favorite tools for this phase is the Inspire® Consumer Insight Platform. By combining images and hashtag word clouds, you get a holistic view of what your consumers say AND how they see (and feel about) their world. When you look at all the data together, you get the whole vibe—and really great thoughts can come out of it. I think the power of visuals shouldn’t be downplayed in this innovation phase. Visuals are better connections to emotions—and emotions are a great gateway to new opportunities.

So if you’re considering exploring your opportunities soon, here’s my best piece of advice: Stay curious. Curiosity doesn’t just kill cats*, it also kills the Status Quo (a bias that makes us default to keeping things the same). Those of us that love innovation, cannot abide by inertia. Asking questions, musing about what something could be—that’s the stuff of wonder and new possibilities.

*No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

Curious Cat

Adam Hansen

Adam Hansen is co-author of the book, "Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation™ Approach Drives Your Company Forward," and Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go – an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies to incorporate the voice of the consumer in ideation and concept development.