Stumped for new product ideas? Meet some pros who look for them from every angle but the obvious.
Any modern-day paint marker knows that to produce sparkling white, you ought to lard the vat with titanium dioxide. But for the original Maker, the simplest way is to let it snow. That existential distinction emerged not too long ago during a brainstorming bout at Innotech Corp., a $5-million-a-year private corporation that specializes in consulting on new products and markets to help businesses expand. Among the notions for the client in question -- a paint manufacturer -- was one for highway-stripe pigments that would reflect headlights under a dulling layer of rain, a technical feat that had gone unsolved for years. The scientists in the session clung stubbornly to their compounds like alchemists on the verge of creating gold. Finally, the ice was broken by a layperson who had been invited to participate: How could winter be so dazzlingly white, the innocent dared ask, without anything being stirred into the mix?
Had the rest of Innotech's idea-generating process gone off as advertised, today that paint company would be vending lane markings embedded with the best snow-flakelike crystals that man could forge. Also, Innotech's subsequent research determined that the market window for exotic stripes was too narrow, and the proposed product never got to see the light of night. Still, among the nation's commercial think tanks, it is likely that only at Innotech would so cheeky an assault on convention have made it that far. Indeed, insofar as the Innotech theory of creation -- an accent-the-positive outlook that would do Norman Vincent Peale proud -- is concerned, the more outrageous, the better. A struggling business wouldn't be ringing Innotech's Trumbull, Conn., doorbell in the first place if ordinary methods had been productive.
Innotech has been concocting bracing elixirs for wilting companies since its founding in 1969, but only recently has its client list picked up, as perplexed businesses increasingly feel the pressures of a changing environment. Volatile markets, short product life cycles, foreign competition, tight money, impatient investors, and a score of other snares that have arisen since the turn of the decade make doing business as usual a risky regimen. "We exist because companies come up against what we call a 'situational dilemma," explains philosophy-, science-, and psychology-trained president and co-founder R. Donald Gamache, injecting a fresh catchall into the vernacular. "When we started, we thought our business was new products -- new-to-the-world products. But we've stopped looking for the magic idea. Now we focus on what these particular guys can be successful with." While Innotech mulls over the client's addled financials to assess the availability of such quantities as "get-smart" money -- the amount that will be needed for market research -- unlike larger consultant operations it doesn't repair management, which it deems to be invariably in a state of "chaos and confusion, and helpless to change."
Innotech also disdains the usual stable of all-purpose experts that such competitors as SRI International, Arthur D. Little, and Booz, Allen & Hamilton keep on their payrolls. "Sure, they're good companies," Gamache demurs, not unlike David telling Goliath what a handsome chap he is, "but if you're going to undergo an operation, you don't go to a GP. We specialize in change; it's the only thing we do." Indeed, even though most of Innotech's 30-person consultancy staff (Innotech also operates two full-fledged manufacturing subsidiaries on the premises "to keep us in the world of reality") own degrees in such fields as engineering, geology, chemistry, and marine biology, and at least half come from business backgrounds, none is extensively experienced in his or her discipline. "It makes some clients nervous that we're not experts," admits Gamache, himself a journeyman traveler through advertising and big-corporation product development. Instead, companies that sign up for the seven to nine months that most Innotech searches consume are presented to Innotech's proprietary BrainBank -- a passel of gray matter that, more than anything else, separates it from the rest of the pack.
Innotech's Patent & Trademark Office-registered BrainBank consists of several thousand scientists, industrialists, academics, magazine writers, and similarly select brain donors culled from leadingedge posts around the country, who, when called upon, travel to Trumbull for a half-day's thinking on behalf of Innotech clients. From its computer list, Innotech compiles a five- to seven-member ragtag band for each such brainstorming session. And by purposely including representatives from disparate disciplines, Innotech's group leaders are able to cajole farranging proposals that might have eluded a gathering of uniform professional pundits, let alone the frenzied captains of foundering businesses. "We discovered that the greatest strength comes from not putting the same heads in the work," says executive vice-president and chief operating officer Caren Calish Gagliano.
In one instance, a mathematician was asked to sit in on a consumer food-item session "to provide rational approaches that you'd never get batting around variations of cherry, vanilla, peanuts, and cashews." For a construction-equipment manufacturer, Innotech's summoning of an entomologist was calculated to steer engineers away from predictable nuts-and-bolts themes; his analysis of strength-to-weight ratios in ants turned out to contribute significantly to the development of the client's new earth mover.
To observers peering in from behind one-way mirrors, a brainstorming session at Innotech is apt to seem as unrelentingly upbeat as Romper Room. The BrainBank players face one another around a table in a smiling-face setting that is decorated with a dozen posted exhortations like "positive comments only" and "relax, laugh a lot, and enjoy yourself." Faced with such importuning, only a dyed-in-the-wool cynic could disobey Innotech's core commandment, "defer judgment and think positive." Unless he is prepared to take on the ridicule of his fellow positive-thinkers, a member won't say, "This napkin will never sell, because it's round." Better: "Perhaps if we squared off the curves, it'd be more acceptable in the marketplace."
As absured as any given idea may sound on the face of it, Innotech treasures the very utterance as if handed down from The Mount. One Innotech staffer manages the process of extracting the ideas, while, as the rapid-fire chatter zigzags around the table, a second scrawls each suggestion on a large sheet of paper and tacks it to the wall. Eventually papered in white, the conference room takes on the air of a communal padded cell. No wonder most clients choose not to watch.
Similarly, the name of the client isn't revealed to the thinkers. It makes the participants nervous, Innotech has found. Do they know enough about the subject? Will their professional standing suffer? And the client's name in itself is constraining. "As soon as you say 'Gillette,' the atmosphere changes," notes senior vice-president Steven W. Lewis. "Everybody thinks 'razor blades." By not thinking "military" in regard to a defense contractor that manufactured a rippled material used to conceal tanks from enemy radar, a group rewarded the anonymous client with a novel, and ultimately profitable, consumer application -- the soles of running shoes.
Innotech's aim, a strategy it calls "surrounding the problem," is to open a session to any areas where the solution might lie -- plus one or two where it might not but that are fun to have around anyway. Name a hundred uses for a cup, a visitor is challenged. "The first 20 will be what everyone else thinks of," explains Lewis. "The next batch goes farther afield. The best solutions are at the end -- the ones you have to eliminate the ordinary for. But if I had said, 'Take this cup and give me two ideas' -- well, you might respond that it holds Pepsi and it's paperweight. Those wouldn't be real choices for a client." Dredging up ideas beyond the ordinary has proved so exhausting that now Innotech dismisses sessions at noon, and renders every BrainBanker ineligible to return for six months. A BrainBank crew on a product-development roll has been known to crank out 500 concepts in a morning's stint, but no matter how fecund, a given group is never reassembled.
Since, Innotech finds, the very trends that may have crippled a business often can be adapted to rescue it, the initial BrainBanking session -- fter the client and Innotech have agreed on the criteria to be met and have mapped out the rules of the hunt -- starts out by looking for broad changes in the market-place. This premiere gathering Innotech terms "Oasis" -- a good try at an acronym for opportunity area identification session. Membership in the initial group is purposely kept broad -- editors of trade magazines might be invited, for example -- so that the search will be wide-ranging.
However expertly couched, the data disgorged by a given group is as inchoate as Day One of the Creation. For instance, asked to propose products that a client's exotically stretchable material could be converted into, the flow might go like this: "A fishing net or mosquito protection. Attachment devices -- buttons, snaps; mold them into those shapes and punch them out like crazy. Put in an additive, so when you touch it to a surface, you can get it to stick. Furniture. A bottle to hold acid in. Solid automobile tires. Make it transparent, and use it as a greenhouse.How about lighter-than-air craft? Boxes. Molding. Temporary protection for new buildings. Shock-absorbing housing for delicate instruments." Paring away the nonessentials -- "white noise," Innotech calls it -- and restructuring the remainder into client-palatable form takes the paid help some two or three person-weeks at a time. "Once the ideas gel," explains Gagliano, "we might say, it looks like there's something here -- this guy corroborates this guy." Then the staff searches independent databases and phones contacts to verify the fiscal feasibility of the selected ideas. Before they are presented, says Gagliano, "we have a pretty good sense of whether there's a market or need for them, if they capitalize on trends and changes, and if they fit the criteria." The quarterfinalists are shown to the client, which chooses several concepts for subsequent BrainBanker groups to pursue. The next six-person panel is less broadly comprised, and its ideas again are debriefed and presented to the client team. The third (and, on average, lst) group is narrower still -- a funneling process Innotech refers to as "increasing the power of the microscope."
As far out as some offerings may stray, no client can claim to have been taken by surprise.The day before unveiling the output of the first BrainBank bunch, Innotech stages a formal creativity course, hoping to prep the client representatives -- 6 to 10 decision makers from, say, marketing, manufacturing, engineering, research and development, and finance, as well as from management -- with a tolerable degree of receptivity. In one mind-stretching exercise, the students are asked to sketch their wristwatches without peeking; most are dismayed to find they are unable to recall even essential elements. "We don't want them to say, 'We tried it before and it didn't work, we're not really interested in that area," explains Gagliano. This is to show how "habits block creativity." The creativity class's final exam -- "Never look for the . . . idea. Always look for . . . ideas!" -- may not be intellectually demanding, but it gets the point across. Pencils up! The correct answers: 1. single, lone, or one; 2. many.
Despite crash programs in creativity, not all quests are deemed fulfilled. BrainBank sessions have seriously proposed such products as a rubber light bulb for vulnerable automobile taillights (rejected by the client because it couldn't make the necessary rubber vacuum seal), and ceramic coatings for pills for a drug company seeking a capsule that was impermeable to water but not to gastric acid (ditto, because "it would be like swallowing a piece of a bowl"). Even when clients pull out of the deal -- or, rather, "don't want to implement the output of the program" -- Gamache claims there is no such thing as an unproductive relationship. Recently, when a series of BrainBank tries couldn't produce an acceptable solution, the empty-handed client nonetheless said that it was "delighted" with the experience, and intended to incorporate Innotech constructs internally into R&D, marketing, sales, management, and finance. Says another, "One of the things Innotech taught us was, when you're in a creative mode and looking for new things, you have to let yourself go wild out on the fringes. And not be evaluative. Even when it looks like a dumb idea, now we let it go for a little while. We learned how to do that to the point where we yell at each other and joke about it. It stimulates our activity."
Evidently, the BrainBankers find the sessions equally stimulating -- they are paid only a small honorarium. The main attraction is the opportunity to talk to others on the periphery of innovation -- the chance to think about things differently. "It's a tremendous challenge for us to be in a room with our peers from other technologies and to be creative without being negative," says Joseph R. Infantino, department manager for a Fortune 500 company. "Innotech has taught me how to be more open on inventiveness, and that perhaps I should be thinking of things outside my discipline. Sitting down in a session with a home economist sounded remote at first, but I started coming up with unusual ideas that made sense."
Before being inducted, each BrainBank enlistee has been contacted for his or her expertise and invited to take part in one session, where he gets to joust with hard-nosed veterans like a rookie at baseball camp. Innotech considers whether the performer relates well in a group setting, searches the incipient thinker's background, and, if judged satisfactorily, files the newly crowned cogitator into the computer for future service. When next called on, the proud BrainBanker is sent a briefing document describing (but not naming) the client, the objectives, and the materials involved in the upcoming project. "By the time they walk in this door," Gamache crows, "they're ready to go. They've done their homework."
BrainBank can be harnessed to explore developmental avenues whether a client is in dire need or not. Thus a jai alai business, whose growth "problem" was to increase attendance, got Innotech to devise ways to lure more people into the fronton. A European company hired Innotech to try to revive interest in cork flooring. Union Carbide Corp. found itself with a surplus of paperlike plastic sheets, which Innotech directed toward use in children's books. And when a cosmetics manufacturer wished to rule out the possibility that it had overlooked other technologies, one proposal addressed an alternative to treating facial wrinkles -- a microscopically thin film of clear polymer that could be spread across the skin, invisibly paving over imperfections -- in effect, dermal Saran Wrap. "Well, my R&D guys would never have looked at it tht way," conceded the chief executive officer when the notion was unrolled. "They're only into oil and water."
Even some well-moneyed research-and-developers find they can't zero in on fresh concepts as cost-efficiently as Innotech -- a prime reason why 12 of the 30 Dow Jones Industrials have been Innotech clients. Says Robert G. Duke, senior vice-president of corporate development for $400-million conglomerate Noxell Corp., for which Innotech has executed three projects, "They are able to look at the challenge in a different way from our point of view. One of the things any company has a problem with is that it gets to know fewer and fewer things as it gets further and further into its business. When you're trying to innovate, to establish something new, many times you have a hard time thinking differently." Last year, Signode Corp., a private, $750-million diversified manufacturer in Glenview, Ill., called on Innotech to help an internal venture team open a new line of business. The major strictures were that the project had to be in plastics and that it couldn't be packaging -- and that the business ought to be worth a minimum of $50 million in five years. Eight months later, the venture was capitalized, and Signode now in heavily into geosynthetics -- high-strength construction materials that reinforce the earth beneath bridges, roads, and buildings.
But why couldn't Signode's own technologists have arrived at that application merely by observing the nation's crumbling infrastructure on the way to work? "An eight-month period isn't very much time to identify a $50-million business," explains Russell J. Gould, the company's vice-president and the general manager of the resulting new business unit. "Innotech's process is efficient. It brings thoughts together, analyzes them, and obtains more data. Then, as things became clearer, we had to make sure this was a good business. Were our assumed strengths in fact our real strengths? Putting all that together, I'm convinced we couldn't have done it ourselves."
Maybe not, but one thing is for sure. If they had gone it alone, they still wouldn't be able to sketch their wristwatches.