Have you ever been in one of those problem-solving brainstorming sessions where old ground is rehashed, driven by the same information, only to come out feeling that it was a complete waste of time and the outcome was a variation of past solutions – and their attending assumptions? If you have, welcome to the club! This phenomenon has played itself out in many organisations and there is a serious need to inject a little more variety into our thinking.
In this article, I would like to share 7 reframing techniques developed by Prof Jeanne Liedtka of the University of Virginia, and used by companies like Pfizer, Hamilton Sunstrand, Best Buy and P&G. These have helped them break out of the “sameness” rut to develop new ideas, products and services, and it will also help you to take your business and “play with it”, as recommended by Prof Liedtka.
Before we jump into the tools, it would be helpful to understand reframing techniques. These are tools that help us see the same situation in a different light. Reframing is an important tool because it helps us uncover new ideas from which to build our next innovation. Indeed, without the ability to reframe, companies will quickly find themselves in the bone yard of extinction. Here then are the 7 techniques, each with a specific strategic question to help you get your thoughts around each frame. I hope at least one of them would be useful for you as they had been for many. Remember – play with your ideas!
Jeanne termed the first technique Diving Deep. This technique is best used to see how you can turn mass-market commodity products into one with differentiated value. Let me take an example: Montblanc pens. Stripped to its bear essential, a Montblanc pen is basically a pen. It does what all other pens can do, and not any better nor worse. A 15-cent mass produced commodity ballpoint pen can function just as well as the basic $400 Montblanc model. This is a massive 2,666 multiple in price! Yet the Montblanc pen is still sought after. And that is because it has moved to a differentiated value proposition that allows them to charge so much more for it. It is seen as much more than a simple writing instrument and that has set a Montblanc pen far apart from the other commodities in the market. Do you have a product that seems more commodity than differentiated? Then the strategic question you might want to ask is: “How can we create differentiated value in our products to increase its value to our customers beyond the commodity market?”
Swimming for the Surface
This next technique is somewhat diametrically opposite from the first. It takes the frame of a customised solution finding more like-minded customers. Let me share another example. SAP was started in 1972 by 5 IBM engineers who were told that their business unit was to be closed. They were working on an enterprise-wide system at that time and instead of abandoning the project, decided to start out on their own. They had only one customer – the German branch of the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) – where they developed customerised mainframe programs for payroll and accounting. These were standalone products which they then took to the market to find other like-minded clients. By doing this, SAP were able to build a giant conglomerate with almost 65,000 employees and a turnover of 16 billion euros in 2012. The question you need to ask yourself is, “How do we find similar like-minded customers with similar needs?”
Still staying with the swimming metaphors, our third reframing technique is well-known; it looks to enlarge the current product to fill adjacent needs. Let’s look at another example of how this has been used. Apple’s first major runaway success was the iPod. The company became a superstar with that product and, for a while, it seemed that nothing could touch them! At that time Apple was not in the mobile phone business and the market leaders were Motorola and Nokia. Apple engineers soon realised that their cash cow may come under threat if the phone companies somehow found a way to tack a music player onto their phone platform. That would shred Apple to pieces! So rather than to wait to be cannibalised, they decided to do it themselves. They “killed” the iPod by developing a phone that incorporated the music function – basically tacking a phone onto the iPod. And the iPhone was born! The iPhone became the next big money maker for Apple and it sealed Apple’s position in the market as an innovative consumer producer. Notice what they did? They had a great product in the iPod, but they did not rest on their laurels, instead asking the strategic question: “How can we apply our current expertise to meet our clients’ adjacent needs?” There is another unexpected outcome to this story. Instead of cannibalising the iPod market, the iPhone reignited it, sealing the strength of the iPod market and the mobile music industry! Now they had TWO market-leading products, not just one!
Do you recall the days when we used to have one fax machine, one photocopier and one scanner on our table? Not only did it take up huge real estate on our tables, but they were also expensive to run and there were huge amounts of duplicates. These days, these products are all but gone and we have a bundled solution of all these 3 machines in one! These 3-in-1 machines are now the standard in the market and while you can still get the standalone machines, they are much more costly than the bundled solutions. Bundling the products you have into one neat solution ups the value proposition of your products. Very often, the cost of adding a second or a third product to the bundle is far outweighed by the perceived value of the bundle and you can sell them much better. Bundling of products has been a key strategy for some time now and you should also see if you cannot put a couple of products you currently sell piece-meal into a bundled solution. So ask yourself this question: “What can we put together to create a multi-product solution to meet our customers’ needs?”
Finding white space
Have you ever looked across your organisation to see how you can work together with different business units to cobble together a solution for a good client? Well, imagine if you can find more of such good clients – a la Swimming for the Surface – and making this a new business unit altogether? Well, if you can, then this is basically what this fifth reframing technique is all about - bundling across business units rather than bundling products. The question you will ask yourself is “What can we do uniquely to leverage our capabilities across business lines to meet new needs in the marketplace?”
Well, if bundling is the commingling of products, and Finding White Space is the coming together of business units, then Networking is the cooperation between organisations to work together to meet changing client needs. These are seen very often in business through joint venture partnerships. The question we can ask ourselves is “How can we use external partnering to build scale and relationships that create better value?”
The turning point for Howard Schultz came when he was Director of Marketing for Starbucks Coffee Company (then owned by its founders Baldwin, Bowker and Siegl). On a buying trip to Milan, Italy, Schultz found that coffee bars existed on every street. They not only served excellent espresso, but they also served as meeting places. These cafes were the social fabric of the country. The key, he surmised, was to offer great experience when the customers come through the door. After he managed to convince the owners to sell him their coffee business, Schultz went on to create a new culture of espresso drinking in a world of whole bean coffee. By focusing on experience rather than the product itself, Schultz was able to charge six times the normal cost for a cup of coffee; and that spurred the explosive growth the company. It also helped that he located one Starbucks café at every street corner! The question you should ask yourself is “What experience can we create that leverages our product expertise that will be of real value to our customers?”
These seven reframing techniques are meant to help you identify new business opportunities. The key is to use them before you dismiss them. By playing with your ideas within each frame, you will be able to see your business in different lenses and create possible new business options where you once had none. Now isn’t this a better outcome to the one you have now?
Reframing the Reframe
But before I leave you, I have one more tip to share with you. While these techniques are well suited in a product or business development space, it can also be applied in non-business related issues. You simply need to "reframe the reframe". This means that you tweak the strategic question to meet your situation. Let me give you an example. Assuming that you are looking to improve paper handling in the checkout process. If you took the Diving Deep perspective, you can ask, "How can we provide a differentiated service to our customers in the checkout process so as to improve the paper handling situation?" This then makes you see your processes in a different light, with a greater (internal) customer focus, and increasing your value proposition with them. What does that do to your operations? Can be quite radical, no? Why not try to reframe the other reframes to apply to your next brainstorming session?