When culture + category combine in interesting ways

Innovation happens when the combination of dominant thinking style and business category are switched around.

I was hosting a strategy workshop for a furniture manufacturer who called me in because they felt stuck as to how they might develop their innovation capabilities.

The business had been around for about 20 years and was financially successful.

They employed about 50 people and had an experienced executive team who had deep knowledge of manufacturing, optimising supply chains and running an operation that produced the same product in the same way, consistently.

Growth had been stagnant for years and their concern was that a rumour was flying around that far bigger international competitor was about to enter the local market, which would pose a significant challenge for them.

They needed a strategy to help them overcome the arrival of the competitor.

What was clear when talking to the team however, was that no matter what new ideas and interventions were proposed, they viewed those opportunities through the lens of being expert local furniture manufacturers working in their business category of choice, which was furniture manufacturing.

They were [furniture manufacturers] working in [furniture manufacturing].

Their culture and brand of thinking was defined by their manufacturing prowess. the relationship that they had with wood suppliers, the trucks that the ran to wholesalers. They were proudly product-focused and ideas that weren't in line with simply improving the existing product were viewed with scepticism.

Because of their entrenched culture and ways of seeing the world; the strategic options that were available to them were limited.  

To help them open up their thinking I proposed a fun thought exercise.

I asked them to brainstorm some new product ideas, but I wanted them to pretend that they were Japanese toy designers who were tasked to come up with new products for a furniture manufacturer.

Now they were [Japanese toy designers] working in [furniture manufacturing].

They gave themselves permission to break free from the constraints of their usual mental maps and produced a flurry of new product ideas. It was a if the roadblocks that had been such a barrier up until that point had simply vanished in an instant.

The exercise was fun, but what it ultimately did was to prove to the team that they did actually have options available to them if they just elected to play around with the combination of an alternate mindset when combined with the category that they choose to define their business to be in.

In many instances you can see how unique combinations of culture + category have created outstanding innovations throughout the world.

Jeff Bezos combined (customer-centric technology) + (selling books) to create Amazon, ShopriteX combined a (world-class technology) culture with a (supermarket) to create Sixty60. Apple combined (design) with (computers) to create one of the most innovative companies in the world.

A few weeks after the workshop the CEO gave me a call and said that what this simple exercise had also highlighted for him was why some of the projects that they had tried in the past had also failed. When he combined  [furniture manufacturers] with [online furniture store] he realised that they at that stage didn't have the internal culture to be successful e-commerce players and shifting that would take time and deliberate intention.