Looking at different fields of thought can help crack problems in more interesting ways
Looking at different fields of thought can help crack problems in more interesting ways
A view from Colin Duff

How to find inspiration and solve problems by looking to analogous fields

Next time you're stuck try looking to other industries for inspiration, writes Colin Duff, senior digital innovation manager at Argos.

Looking to analogous fields – other industries that have faced similar challenges – is commonplace in R&D departments

One of the stiffest challenges I’ve ever faced was to swell sales of an erectile dysfunction (ED) medicine in Asia, for a pharma client when I was a management consultant. It was a hard brief because government regulations forbade marketing of prescription medications. For inspiration I turned to the UK infant formula market, which faced similar restrictions; intended to maintain the primacy of breast feeding.  The industry has effectively circumnavigated these restrictions by introducing similar adjacent products (i.e., same brand and packing) such as follow-on milk, which wasn’t covered by the regulations. Applying this approach to my ED brief, I recommended my client introduce a line of branded condoms and lubes, thus enabling them to market their core product by proxy.

Overlooked by marketers

Looking to analogous fields – other industries that have faced similar challenges – is commonplace in R&D departments. (For example anti-lock braking (ABS) was born out of conversations car manufactures had with the airline industry – the experts at stopping fast moving objects quickly). However, the technique is often overlooked by marketers and especially on small non-technical challenges, even though it is equally applicable and quick and simple to do.

For example, some former colleagues were working on another pharma project: to help scientists develop new treatments for severe anxiety. Their breakthrough came after speaking with a parachute instructor about how he manages nervous jumpers. His solution was to give them a lengthy questionnaire to complete on the plane ride, which he did purely to distract them. Armed with this new perspective, the scientists re-focused their efforts on distracting the mind, which ultimately lead to a new breakthrough drug.

Radically different thinking

An important principle when using this technique is that generally the more contextually different the fields you look to, the more novel the inspiration you’ll get

An important principle when using this technique is that generally the more contextually different the fields you look to, the more novel the inspiration you’ll get. For example if you are a marketer in a mature, somewhat commoditised market such as beer and want to differentiate your brand through packaging innovation, you need to go beyond obvious adjacencies. So instead of just consulting soft drinks manufactures and FMCG companies, look to others such as home appliance manufactures. (E.g., asking Dyson how they would re-invent beer packaging will likely get you to radically new places).

People like to be experts

When I introduce this approach to colleagues and clients for the first time, most are enthusiastic about the desk research. But many are sceptical about the practicality of the primary research; especially for smaller challenges. Surely finding relevant subjects will be difficult, slow and costly. Actually, no! I usually find at least half of them through my personal network: greasing the palms of the referrer and participant (£50-100 or a charity donation) always helps. For the other half, I use qualitative recruiters who are experts in finding just about anyone – I’ve requested subjects as diverse as dog psychologists to physicists on previous projects – for a nominal sum (usually £60-150). Don’t confuse them with a market research agency who will charge a substantive, consultancy level fee for this type of work. The reason it’s so easy is most people are delighted to be consulted as an expert.

Once you embrace this approach you’ll never look back, but you will look sideways.