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Four Questions to Spark Innovation

Four Questions to Spark Innovation

The stresses of running any business with even moderate success are pretty much all consuming. It’s no wonder, therefore, if enterprises sometimes lack the time to stand back and think creatively about innovation – and suffer accordingly down the line. 

Only a few companies can afford to send their teams to reflect on business in fancy lodges on the sides of mountains, but we can all get into the mindset such places are ideally meant to promote. We can get into the habit of mentally ‘standing back’ – and wondering whether the future of our business could be a bit different, and richer, than its past. 

There are four big questions that can generate fruitful thinking:

1. What might your customer secretly be hoping for? 

It sounds odd but many customers privately (and unclearly) harbour hopes of companies that go a long way beyond what these companies are currently offering. A great way to innovate is to tap into these secret hopes and build products and services to meet them. The possibilities for growth can be enormous. 

Take some of the hopes that hover around the travel industry. Consider the Four Seasons hotel on the Caribbean island of Nevis. What it offers its customers currently includes: a set of bungalows with plunge pools, a spa, tennis courts, a three star restaurant and water-skiing facilities. But it’s evident that these elements don’t represent the limit of the hopes that customers might be bringing to the hotel when they go there, the travellers might also be hoping that: 

– they can finally sort out anxieties around their careers 

– their relationships with their children could improve 

– they would reconnect with their partner

These three hopes are not currently addressed, but to take each of them seriously could mean setting up three new businesses (a professional development coach, a family therapist, marriage counselling). 

Or let’s look at some of the secret hopes people bring to financial services companies. When we step back, a bank is not just a place to store money safely, with a competitive interest rate and decent customer service. We want these things, of course, but the less articulate secret hope is about something else: living well around money. When it comes to money, we have questions about how to deal with envy, worries about what to spend money on, speculations about how to make money and desires for how to teach children about the value of money. 

There are big opportunities for the financial sector in understanding more correctly people’s biggest needs and ambitions around cash. A wide path to growth emerges whenever companies see themselves as being able to tackle not just a local issue but one of the big themes of existence.

2. Are there neighbouring problems you could fix? 

Does the problem that you’re fixing exist somewhere else and would it make sense for you to fix it there? 

The designer Giorgio Armani founded his clothing business in 1975 and soon found widespread success. What motivated him was the desire to fix the chaos and clutter of the world – and he did this by giving his audience an experience of simple elegance delivered via clothes. 

But with time, Armani realised that similar problems – of clutter, chaos, mess, disorder – could be identified in other areas of life. He’d fixed it in one area, could he now move on to addressing it in others? 

The Armani company grew from clothes to perfumes to hotels and furniture.

3. Might you take the same Message into a different Medium? 

It’s easy for a company to become fixated on the medium in which it first launched – and therefore to fail to see that its message (which is the really valuable bit) could happily and lucratively transfer. 

This can happen to artists. Andy Warhol began his career making paintings. His values – an ironic, half-critical, half-loving look at the ephemera of American life – seemed ideally and perhaps exclusively suited to canvas. 

But with time, Warhol stepped back and came to a richer realisation. His message could as happily exist in a book, a film, some photographs or a magazine. Which is how he came to make a two-minute film of himself eating a hamburger from Burger King. 

The same manoeuvre can be made in business. For a long time, Michael Heseltine’s company, Haymarket Publishing, believed that it should exclusively focus on making magazines. But in the mid-1990s, Heseltine realised (these things always sound simple) that he had stuck a little too loyally to what was, after all, only the medium – and that his message (information relevant for businesses) could exist in many other media, an idea that lay behind a decision to start an event company, a digital platform and a consulting arm.

4. What is the Bigger Version of your current activity? 

Of any current business activity we can ask ourselves: what is the bigger version of this? One can ask: what is the underlying principle within the business? And what would it look like for the business to apply that principle in larger ways? 

When teasing out the underlying principle of a business, we shouldn’t look at what the business actually does as the move it is making. So the principle of a nut manufacturer isn’t making nuts, it is making healthy snacks. The principle of a phone company isn’t making phones, it is communication. This means that one can imagine the business operating in ways that are utterly faithful to its principles and yet with quite different products and services. 

Let’s take a very small thing indeed, a paperclip – and ask what the bigger version of this is. The underlying principle of the paperclip company is temporary order. The paperclip is a beautifully simple micro tool devoted to keeping sheaves of paper in order, while allowing them to be easily released. It was an advance on binding (which also orders papers but in a more permanent fashion, at odds with the need to extract particular sheets).

The larger version of this activity could lie in filing cabinets, shelving, bags and briefcases. Because in each case the same principle is involved. One day, the paperclip company could logically get around to car parks. 

Or take a company that is currently making ear plugs. Its underlying principle is quiet. It’s tapping into the need for serenity: focus in a noisy world, where sound is a disturbing and intrusive factor. This could lead it into a range of new markets; noise-cancelling equipment, acoustic insulation or scented candles that promote tranquility. They might develop a brand of fee-paying luxury restrooms that are havens of quiet or reinvent the monastery as a quiet secular retreat.


Innovation is the key because – in the sense we’ve been exploring – it is the process of working out business-solutions to problems that are most important to us. The products that any company is currently offering might only be a small part of the customer’s real needs in a given area. Creatively re-defining the business area that a company is in can radically alter the sense of what its core tasks might be – and where its future opportunities might lie.

Find out more in our class on Innovation.

By The School of Life

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