Gregg Fraley 

How bolder questions provide better answers, and breakthrough innovation. Does the market really need another purple cookie?

What passes for innovation at some companies are really line extensions that are so risk averse and unexciting it’s no wonder we see market stalwarts like Kodak fail. The purple cookie syndrome is what happens when researchers do an unimaginative job of raising strategic questions based on research insights. Let’s not forget that research may provide insight, but it does not usually provide great ideas for new products that can be implemented. I often get the sense that people feel that research is all that needs done to come up with new products. Well, it’s a start, but there’s this invention step that uses research as a springboard (or not!)

Executives are desperately looking for ways to disrupt markets, and grow their companies by getting into new markets. To stay in business a company needs to innovate in two ways:

  1. Improvements to products and logical line extensions that bring new value.
  2. Breakthrough innovations that take the company into whole new markets.

Purple cookies are the result of taking a market insight and developing a “new” product that directly addresses the stated (or perceived) market need. Purple cookies are obvious in spite of their snazzy colour. The cookie tastes pretty much like … a regular cookie. Purple cookies might get sampled, but they rarely do better than the original cookie. When coupled with a yellow, green, and blue cookie, each getting smaller bits of the same market, ACME Cookies, Ltd, begins to shrink.

Innovation is incredibly difficult and complicated. What many companies get wrong is the balance between incremental and breakthrough innovation. Generally, it’s too much of incremental, and too little breakthrough. The good news is, there are proven ways to create new products and services that leverage market insights to create breakthrough, even disruptive new products. The missing factor in the process is often a better platform question for idea generation.  When I say better, what I mean is non-obvious, braver, bolder, more intriguing questions.

When you ask more interesting questions, you often get more interesting answers.

Researchers are careful about interpreting findings — and that’s how it should be. Still, if they leave it to others to go beyond hard analysis and fail to develop strategic questions, they’re not providing full value to their customer. What’s wrong with a separate report that is more divergent and imaginative in nature? Of course it should be carefully labeled and positioned as beyond the research, but why not provide a report with a title something like: “Imaginative Thinking Inspired By…”?  Maybe it shouldn’t even be labeled a report at all – let’s call it a Platform Document.

Let’s look at the purple cookie again. The research that ACME Cookies conducted indicated that consumers were interested in new cookie flavours. The consumers said directly, “We’d like some fruit flavoured cookies.”  The question, the obvious question might be: “How do we create a fruit flavoured cookie?” Great, so, what kind of fruit haven’t we used yet? Grape? Okay, so we add a little more colour to our existing recipe — and we’ve got a purple cookie.

What might have happened to new product development at ACME Cookies if they had asked one of the following questions:

  • How might we develop a healthy fruit-based cookie?
  • How might we make a healthy sweet snack?
  • How might we create a cancer prevention snack?

Hello? Where did the cancer prevention question come from? That’s NOT IN THE RESEARCH! Well, it’s true, the consumers didn’t say they wanted a cancer prevention cookie directly did they?  It’s an intuitive question developed because the question creator is thinking beyond the research. She’s thinking, “What does it mean when consumers ask for a healthy cookie?” She’s thinking, well, it indicates weight concerns, concerns about eating too much processed food, maybe issues with too much refined sugar, and, maybe even, fear of ageing or disease. The researcher knows that ACME products are consumed by a demographic that’s ageing. She’s thinking — how might we help? This is what’s going through the mind of the question creator.

Imagine if you will that some ideation is done with the more intuitive question, “How might ACME create a cancer prevention snack?”

In an idea generation session a concept is thought up to develop a nutrient-rich snack with natural fructose flavor, using fruits thought to be “super-foods” like blueberries and blackberries. So, instead of a purple cookie, maybe ACME introduces “Purple Super-Food Fudge”.

I’m just making this up – but then again, making things up is the essence of invention. One reason Apple is so successful is because they think and invent ahead of consumer desires instead of merely reacting to them.

Researchers become welcome visitors in the C-suite when they help make good research more actionable. In my view research can add significant value by developing divergent lists of intriguing questions, perhaps even strategic questions. If they do a good job with this work, they’ll leverage the research investment and help clients like ACME do something more interesting than another purple cookie.

Gregg Fraley is an innovation and trends speaker and Principle at KILN.