Liza Iceland1

For my sister’s most recent birthday, we decided to go to Iceland. The Nordic island nation is one of the “it” places to travel these days—and everyone who has gone there has documented it magnificently. The easiest way to see Iceland is via the Golden Circle—a well-traveled sightseeing route with stunning views, thermal pools, and LOTS of tourists.

Since it was our first trip to the country, we debated about our approach:

  1. Go on the well-traveled path.
  2. Do something completely different, off the beaten path, and full of tækifæri (Icelandic for opportunity).

Liza SheepWe decided to choose the latter, the path that scared us the most—mostly because we wanted one of those “once-in-a-lifetime-experience” trips. We hired a guide (a stranger) who took us to non-touristy places, hiked with us up mountain sheep trails, taught us to throw axes, and even got us into a small community’s annual sheep roundup celebration. The experience was as one-of-a-kind as we hoped—and more. It was paradigm-shifting (what it means to “vacation”). It was immersive (nobody parties harder than Icelandic farmers after corralling sheep). It left us changed for the better (sorry to be so sappy).

It was a leap of faith—and it worked out beautifully. Even though our guide may not have known what was coming next, he knew how to custom-design an adventure for us that would be transformative. Had we just gone with the easiest solution—do whatever everyone else did—we would have missed out on all the things we didn’t even know we could do or see.

Taking the easy route is a hard way to discover anything new. It’s as true for business innovation as it is for Icelandic vacations. True trailblazers take the road of most resistance—the undiscovered territory that puts their business and brand on the path to emerging opportunities first, before their competition even knows where to start looking.

Opportunity Discovery—one of the earliest stages of innovation—should be scary and uncomfortable. At the beginning of the process, it feels something like starting with a glaringly white piece of paper and hoping a Van Gogh masterpiece magically appears.

This fuzzy, early stage of innovation is your first opportunity to write new and different rules of competition. If you lapse into the default expectations of your category, you’ve already given up too much ground to your competitors. When you’re the first to discover—and define—the new need space, everyone has to follow in your self-made path.

So how do you blaze your own trail? Here are 3 starting points:

    Wait, what? Yes, time—the one thing you never have enough of—is the thing that will be your greatest ally. Teams charged with bringing innovation and newness to their business or brand can find themselves trapped by their own Availability Bias. The most recent events, memories, and even trends you’re hearing from the “trenches” can quickly be turned into an opportunity. But think about what that actually means. These are things currently happening or have recently happened. Past tense. In this scenario, emerging, or evolving interest or trends are already cut out of your consideration equation. Taking the time to explore your opportunity options from all perspectives can help widen your “field of play.” This could mean talking to experts in adjacent categories, proactively engaging with your consumers to not just learn about what they are doing but also what they wish they were doing, or just sitting around doing some Assumption Busting on what your business or brand is all about. Taking the time to collect a wide-range of perspectives, insights, and a-has provides better starting points to navigate out from.

    A former colleague of mine used to say, “Change your shoes to change your perspective.” It wasn’t just her love of beautiful shoes that inspired that. It was the idea that if we put ourselves in a different state of mind (or someone else’s shoes), we might see our challenge in a new way. How you Frame something impacts the solutions that come out of it. If you need to sell more blue balloons, and the only way you frame your problem is, “How do I sell more blue balloons?” the resulting answers will be limited to that particular frame of reference. If you generate different questions related to the original, your solutions start to diverge—“What else floats?” or “Who might need lightweight objects?” or “What does ‘blue’ mean to people?” Starting with the journalistic questions: Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, How? can open up more possibilities for you to explore.

    Diversity of perspective and thought matter. If you go back to the same data again and again, you not only lose diversity, you can also lose momentum. Think of the air freshener effect—the first time you encounter a scent, it’s strong and, even if not appealing, at least clearly noticeable. Over time, that same freshness wears off, and you really have to work your brain to remember what it was like (even if you’re wrong). I believe the same can be true of data without emotional context. For something to truly imprint on your brain, it should have a hook—emotional, visual, whatever—to bring it to life. The watch out is that even with context, it still has a short shelf-life. So refresh your data regularly. And always use real consumers. Insights generated without actual consumers is a missed opportunity. Think of it this way: if in-the-moment insights and a-has only happen in the moment, don’t you want to be there to hear them? 

    Another great way to get insights is from inside your organization. Making a point to get multiple functions involved Liza Iceland2from your company, early on in an innovation project, is important. Not only do different perspectives cover more ground, they can also identify opportunities and concerns more efficiently, and effectively. A great way to do that—while minimizing the postulating and internal politicking—is to bring in outside help. Just having an objective party there can alleviate faction tension, and keep the process moving smoother.

     And here’s something you don’t want to hear—don’t trust yourself. Yes, you are a consumer. But you are most likely not your consumer. Your insights about why you might buy something will be different than that of your target audience.

Still with me? Great. Learning about how to break new ground is as hard as writing about how to break new ground—or planning an Icelandic vacation. So here’s my takeaway: get a good guide, talk to real consumers (or Icelandic sheep farmers), and ask lots of questions. You might just find yourself clearing a path to innovation greatness. Góða ferð (have a good journey)!

Liza Babcock

Liza Babcock is a Creative and Marketing Writer at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.