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Using Stimulus to Innovate (Pt. 1 of 2)

March 15, 2019

Have you ever found yourself stuck when dealing with a problem or an opportunity? Instead of spinning your wheels, consider doing some rapid research!

In Innovation Engineering we call this Stimulus Mining. But first, a quick definition. What is Stimulus Mining?

Stimulus Mining is taking the time (with your team or on your own) to complete targeted research that drives you to think about or approach the problem or opportunity with a different perspective.

Stimulus can be anything that challenges your current way of thinking; anything that makes you stop and ponder (What if?). This can include customer problems, opinions, facts, quotes, articles, videos, images, patents, trends, technology, etc. The goal of Stimulus Mining isn’t to find the idea. The goal is to find large amounts of stimulus that can help get your mind thinking in new ways.

For example, say you were renovating a kitchen…you might look at pictures of other kitchens, talk to your friends/family, research different types of appliances and look at ratings, etc. That is all stimulus.

Typically, what people or organizations do when they research is 1. Ask their customers what they want 2. Look at what their competitors are doing. And then they stop. These two areas very are important, but not sufficient. You need to take the time to dig deeper.

What are the different types of Stimulus Mining? Let’s start with the first two that you already know about and then go from there.

1) Insight Mining - The voice of the customer.

Let’s make a distinction here. The ‘customer’ may be the end user; if this is a product or service that you are working on. However, the customer could also be your co-workers if you are working on an internal system or process. Think of this as the people who would ‘Buy’ your idea whether internal or external.

Voice of the customer is a key area of research when digging up stimulus.

To do this, you could send out surveys, or even better do some quick interviews. Ask them about the problems they face and even what they wish could be better. Another place you can look is your customer reviews. Tracking who said what isn’t as important as tracking what key themes emerge. Ask yourself, “What did I learn?” after each interview or survey response.

While the data you gather will be helpful, it is not sufficient. If you recall the famous Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

2) Market Mining - What’s the competition doing? What are other industries doing?

It is very common for organizations to spend a good amount of time studying and keeping tabs on their competition. Staff may do site visits and travel to other countries to see what’s coming next. You can also find plenty of stimulus in other industries just from some good old Google searching. You may find news articles, videos, images etc. that are all related to your mission.

Have other organizations or industries already solved your challenge? Dig into what they are doing, not so you can copy them, but instead spark ideas for how to leap past them. Be sure to make notes on what you are finding, including the URL so that you can reference it again later on. Again, after each interesting finding ask yourself “What did I learn?” and jot that down as well.

If you were to stop here, you’d be much better off than if you did no research at all. But there is so much more to do! To really stretch your thinking, be sure to also include these next 4 areas of stimulus mining.

3) Wisdom Mining - Academic Research

Get your hands on some academic articles related to the topic you are researching. Databases like Google Scholar or EBSCO host are excellent resources. If you don’t have access to one of these scholarly sources, you can still find plenty of good articles in other search engines.

You can search for articles such as:

• Best practices
• Stats related to your challenge
• Studies that have been done on the different aspects of your challenge (ex. academic journals)
• What research articles are out there that have a similar theme to your challenge
• Human psychology on different aspects of your challenge

4) Patent Mining - Looking at patents (Pretty self-explanatory)

Before you tell me “Patents have nothing to do with my organization…” please read on.

You will be surprised at the ideas that spark when you start digging up patents. Patent Mining is applicable whether you are working on a product, service or internal system. The goal here isn’t to copy or buy a patent. The goal is to look at patents out there in the world that are interesting to you. They may be related or unrelated to your challenge.

Google’s patent search is a fantastic resource. The best way to do this is to break your challenge into pieces and look for patents related to that. For example, if you look at a common internal challenge: Employee Turnover. If you were to do a patent search for: “Programs for Employee Retention” – you will find patents related to that.

Be sure to look at the patent abstract as well as the image. This way you can very quickly skim through the many patents in your topic area. Remember you aren’t trying to find the solution, you are trying to find interesting stimulus so that you can spark an innovative idea to solve your challenge.

5) Future Mining - Anticipating the future

Future predictions won’t necessarily be accurate, but they are useful when coming up with new ideas. What does the world look like 5, 10 and 20 years from now? We don’t know of course, but what can we anticipate? Look at trends and mega shifts.

For example, we can look at things like:
• Baby boomers retiring
• Millennials taking on leadership positions
• Tiny house movement
• Quantum computing etc.

At a glance, we might think these things have nothing to do with our challenge. But think a little deeper. What kind of impacts will these trends have and how will you be able to react in the years to come?

6) Unrelated - Just look for cool and interesting stuff!

Unrelated mining is really looking at things that are totally unrelated to your challenge. This can be a tough one. Where do you start?

Here are some things I might search for with unrelated mining:
• Cool gadgets of 2019
• New car features
• Animal behaviours

These searches will have absolutely nothing to do with the challenge you have. But when you start digging into new things that you find interesting, your mind will start to associate new concepts and you’ll be surprised at some of the ideas that may spark from that.

Some key things to remember:

• When stimulus mining, you aren’t looking for the idea. You are looking for ‘sparks’ that drive you to think differently so that you can come up with the idea.

• You don’t need days or weeks of time to complete rapid research. Just spend a few hours on it at first. (Of course, building a short survey for Insight Mining may take a little longer)

• In an Innovation Engineering Project, we usually spend about four hours total on Stimulus Mining before we head into the Create Session to start generating ideas.

• Stimulus mining gets easier with practice. It will feel awkward the first time, but you will come up with more innovative ideas if you do stimulus mining than if you just jump straight to ideation.

As always, let us know how we can help!

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