In search of the secret ingredient for innovation

It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.


Soumya Ranjan Dash

3 years ago | 5 min read

We had failed. Well, let me not hide behind the “we” when acknowledging failure. I was leading the venture. So, I must accept that I had failed. Why? Why had I (we) failed despite having a team of excellent product managers with deep business knowledge, product engineers with technology expertise and solution architects abreast of the latest?

We had been working on this telematics solution for a year and a half now, iterating our web-based solution and our mobile app. We had been meeting scores of clients to demonstrate our solution and receive feedback.

We had tied up with device manufacturers and cloud hosting providers. Yet, for some reason, our innovation had failed to gain enough traction. In other words, we had failed to get clients beyond a couple. Why?

It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so

I had realized it late. Too late to salvage the telematics venture. Today, I can admit it. I had been trained and certified in both Design Thinking and Jobs To Be Done by reputed firms, but had not been honest in applying the learning.

Like so many others, I too had paid my lip service to these “cool” methodologies, but had found it rather onerous to apply in a B2B context.

After all, we were building solutions for insurance companies. Yes, solutions which insurance companies’ customers finally used, but we were selling to businesses, not their customers.

What to innovate?

The ideal business innovation is said to lie at the intersection of three things —

  1. Desirability — What do people want?
  2. Feasibility — How can we build it with today’s technology?
  3. Viability — Can we create a business which makes money?

Armed with engineering and management degrees and having worked for a decade and a half in management consulting, with a majority of it in an IT services major, I always well appreciated both the business and the technology parts of the equation. I underappreciated the people component.

If you are familiar with these three criteria of innovation, you might have seen the Venn diagram showing them as overlapping circles with the intersection of all three highlighted as the innovation sweet spot.

Let me let you in on a secret I have found after working on both successes and failures.

The three circles are not equal.

The most important circle is the one marked desirability. Without there being people who have pains to relieve or gains to make, there can be creativity, but no innovation. So, I have learnt to begin the journey in this circle.

Next comes feasibility. Some people jump from identifying needs to creating business plans. However, real innovation does not happen in nicely designed PowerPoint slides. You need to understand technology that will make it happen.

Finally, the question of viability must be answered. Any fool with enough money can buy tickets on SpaceX, but if you are on the other side selling those tickets, you have to find a way to make it viable for you to do it while making money.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Cut to another day, a few years later. It’s February and the weather is pleasant. We are working together with a leading life insurance carrier as their digital innovation partner. We have reserved three conference rooms for breakout sessions on three topics, namely customer experience, sales effectiveness and process efficiency.

I walk into one of the breakouts to see how things are going on. The team comprised of senior leaders from our client’s organization and our consultants are working together. I look around the room.

I see a bunch of “What If!” (WI) ideas on sticky notes pasted on one wall. I look at another wall and see a different bunch of “How Might We?” (HMW) questions on sticky notes pasted on that one. Presently, I pay attention to the presentation monitor at the center and the whiteboard next to it.

The team has called out the agent as the primary user. They have listed a few points to describe the persona of the agent. Next, they have listed the end, experience and life goals of the agent. I listen to them discussing the WI ideas and the HMW questions in relation to it.

We had learnt our lesson. The innovation journey began with two questions for analysis, before we could proceed to synthesis —

How to innovate?


  1. Who? — The user, her persona and her needs
  2. Why? — Pains, gains and insights


  1. What? — Product or service with pain relievers and gain creators
  2. How? — Prototype to test hypothesis and iterate

Finally, a business case to answer the question of viability before we or our client decided to invest significantly in solution. The program was a huge success. What made the difference? Beginning with the secret ingredient.

Why 1984 was not like 1984

I completed my post-graduation in management in 2004. I had a series of interviews during our final placement process. One of them was with a financial service major for a potential role in sales and marketing.

The interviewers asked me a very basic question, “What is the difference between brand value and brand equity?”

After a placid recounting of the steps involved in calculating brand value, I launched into a passionate description of brand equity. I asked them, “Have you seen Apple’s Macintosh ad of 1984?” The ad was based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” and turned the advertising and computing world on their heads.

The reason I liked the commercial so much was that it spoke of emotional benefits much more than functional benefits. For those harking back to Steve Job’s introducing the iPod in 2001 or the iPhone in 2007 as great examples of a product conveying emotional benefits ahead of functional ones, I can’t help pointing out the much earlier 1984 commercial.

Why to innovate?

What I have found is that, even when we move beyond the touch and feel world of consumer goods to the more abstract world of financial services and insurance, still emotional benefits are as important, nay, even more, important than functional benefits.

The most common functional benefits are to build something cheaper, faster or better.

In contrast, the most common emotional benefits that I have found are a couple of pairs of opposites.

  1. People buy either hope for a better future or protection from their fear. Good examples are why people vote for a particular candidate in the US presidential elections, why they buy insurance and why they invest in their children’s education.
  2. People buy either things that they love or to avoid what they hate. Good examples are watching movies in a cinema theater vs. at home and, going to restaurants vs. ordering for home delivery.

So, now my team and I make it a point to look for all the emotional benefits that users might be able to derive from the solution that we build. I think that finally we have found the secret ingredient.

Throughout this story, I have not explicitly named the “secret” ingredient. Did you still recognize it? I am sure you did. Congratulations!

Originally published on medium


Created by

Soumya Ranjan Dash







Related Articles