Suppose that a manager has a broad idea for a new or improved product or service, and has collected a list of consumer need groups – those things that consumers would like the product or service to do. The next step for the manager is to provide some more detail about how the product or service will meet some or all of the consumer needs. They can do this by generating concepts, which are rough descriptions of how the product or service works and of the resources used. This blog post describes methods for concept generation, with examples drawn from organisations and situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.). The sections discuss the division of concept generation into manageable pieces, the generation of concepts by an individual or team in an organisation, and the generation of concepts from people outside an organisation, namely product and service users, other organisations, and experts.
Dividing the task
Often a proposed product or service is complicated: it may have to do many things, or be technically complex. In that case, before starting on concept generation it is sensible to divide the task into smaller subtasks of generating concepts of how its parts work. The concepts from each of the subtasks can subsequently be combined into concepts for the whole product or service, and the best combination selected. The division is useful because concepts for product and service parts are often easier for people to understand and assess, and they may be easier to find because there will frequently be more previous examples of a part of a product or service than a whole one.
The division into subtasks can be made in various ways. One way is to generate separate concepts for each of group of consumer needs. This approach would work well if there are many needs or if the concepts of each need are largely independent of the concepts for other needs. For example, the Kinshasa hotel in the last blog post wanted to innovate its reception service and had 16 need groups, such as “the reception staff calculate bills correctly” and “the reception staff give guests a pleasant welcome”. There are many needs here, and their concepts are independent of the concepts for other needs – the technology, actions, and skills required to calculate bills correctly and to greet guests are largely distinct. As a result, the hotel would benefit from generating concepts for each of its needs separately.
Another way of dividing the task of concept generation is to generate separately the concepts for each part of the operations or technology that delivers the product or service. This approach would work well if the operations or technology are complicated. For example, computer software often has to interact with a user, represent user instructions in its internal models, and act on those instructions; these stages present a natural division, and a software designer could generate concepts for each of these parts or possibly for further subdivisions if the stages are still technically demanding. The parts may not be fully known initially, and an innovation manager may make their best guess of the parts based on their own assessment or on products and services that are already available. The manager can revise their assessment during the subsequent concept generation, if it seems appropriate, and generate concepts for this revised list of parts.
Generating concepts internally
Concepts can be generated either internally, by the innovation manager and any member of their innovation team, or externally. Let us look at internal generation first. Brainstorming in a team is one method, where the whole team sits together and its members suggest concepts as they think of them, without immediately worrying about their quality. However, brainstorming can be inefficient because some members may be unable or unwilling to express themselves as freely as other members. Another method, nominal groups, avoids these sources of inefficiencies while maintaining effective aspects of brainstorming. In it, the innovation manager and the team members initially work in very small groups of between one to three people. The groups are told whether the aim is to generate concepts for the whole product or service, or for some part of it.
Each group then thinks of as many concepts as they can, describing how the product, service, or part would work and what resources would be required. The group members should sit together (or on their own, for one-member groups), and write down or record ideas as they think of them. The group should be told to generate concepts until they cannot think of any others, and to avoid assessing concepts during generation so that concepts are presented more quickly and with less inhibition. Once the group has generated ideas through this base approach, they can use an alternative method that may generate a wider range of ideas: the group lists five of their organisation’s important characteristics, such as detailed knowledge of local market conditions or a limited access to resources, and then for each characteristic the group tries to think of a concept that uses the characteristic in some way.
The information about the concepts should initially be sufficient to show the general operation of the product, service, or part of them, as well as what approximate resources would be required. The numerical details are not required, such as the dimensions of a product or the quantity of resources, and nor are technical details of the operation if they are already known or established elsewhere. Typically, initial concepts can be described in a paragraph or less, or shown in a quick sketch.
As an example of internal concept generation, consider an individual, Richard, who works alone in a large city, asking tourists whether they would like any services done and performing those services if possible. Richard has an idea for an innovation: a formal sightseeing tour on foot, where Richard advertises the tour in advance, collects payment in advance, and then guides a group of tourists around the major sights of his city. Richard has spoken to tourists about their needs for the tour, and summarised the needs using the method outlined in the last blogpost. Some are that the tour guide gives interesting information about the places visited, the tour is safe, and the tourists do not have to walk too much. The needs could be delivered largely independently of each other – Richard could give interesting information during a safe or unsafe tour, for example – and so he decides to generate concepts separately for each need.
Richard uses nominal groups to generate ideas. He is working alone, so is in a group of one. For each need, he thinks of concepts that describe how he could work to satisfy the need and what resources would be required. He writes down any ideas that he thinks of, without judging them, until he can’t think of any more. For the need “the tour guide gives interesting information about the places visited”, he thinks of many concepts, including: 1) he presents historical information about buildings, 2) he presents information about exciting events that happened at the places, and 3) he presents information about celebrity connections to the places.
Richard then decides to generate a wider range of ideas. He identifies five of his important characteristics as a tour guide: he is comfortable presenting to people, he is familiar with tourist preferences, he is an expert in the area, he works alone, and he has little money. For each characteristic, he tries to think of a concept that uses the characteristic in some way. For the characteristic “he is comfortable presenting to people”, he thinks of two concepts: 1) he presents the information while dressed in clothes connected to the place in some way, and 2) he includes songs in his presentation.
Generating concepts externally
This section looks at how concepts may be generated from three external sources: users, other organisations, and experts.
Generating concepts from users
Concepts can be generated from users by looking for concepts described in their comments about similar products or services, or shown in the ways they use those products or services. Users can be a good source of concepts because they may already have found a way of meeting their needs relating to the idea. People who use related products or services a lot may be particularly good sources of concepts because of their familiarity with them and their motivation to improve them. Concepts from users may also be valuable when they have a high level of technical knowledge relevant to the operation of the product or services, for example when they are engineers working with a purchased machine.
When concepts are being collected from users, many pieces of data may have to be examined, as few users may have concepts to share. The collection can be done by asking users when they purchase the product or service how they have used similar ones in the past. Their responses may indicate a novel use that could be a product or service concept. Alternatively, users can be observed or questioned when they use similar products or services. Observation can be helpful when they have made novel uses of the products or services, but are unable or unwilling to describe them. Another potential source of user concepts are online reviews of related products or services, which have occasional suggestions for changes to operation or technology that could be used as concepts. A large number of reviews may have to be considered, but the collection is quick.
As an example, consider the energy company Société nationale d’électricité (Snel), which supplies electricity to Kisangani in the East of the D.R.C. Power cuts by Snel have created difficulties for its customers, and some of them, such as industrial companies, have introduced a solution to the problem, by adopting a type of electricity generator called “Njaffa” (link). This is a small generator that uses fuel oil to drive a motor, with a cooling mechanism connected to a barrel of water. The generators are either purchased or rented from local suppliers. If Snel is looking to innovate so that its supply becomes more reliable, then these concepts – both the Njaffa technology and the approach of working with local energy suppliers – could be useful, perhaps in modified form or in combination with other concepts.
Generating concepts from other organisations
Other organisations can be a useful source of concepts. Other organisations may have found ways of meeting some or all the users’ needs, or solving operational or technological aspects of the delivery of those needs. Concepts from other organisations may be particularly valuable when the organisations are working in areas that have some relation to the proposed product or service – for example, organisations working in the area of conflict resolution may be valuable sources of concepts for a service to broker truces between fighting groups.
One way of generating concepts from other organisations is by examination of their products and services, to identify technologies and operations that could work, perhaps with adaptation, to deliver the proposed product or service. The identification of technologies and operations can often be done by observing the product or service as it works, or reading descriptions of its use. Technologies can also often be identified by disassembling a product, and in the case of some products such as electronic goods or computer software, this may be the most efficient approach. Another way of identifying some technologies is from patent records. In many countries, organisations deposit a patent record – a publicly available record of the technologies within their products – and so obtain a protection against competition from products using similar technologies, for a period of time. Examination of these national or foreign records can be a source of concepts for the innovation manager. Although the manager may not be able to directly base their concepts on the technologies during the period of protection, they may be able to use the technologies as a starting point to think of a different concept. Once the period of protection expires, the manager can directly base their concepts on the technologies.
There is an alternative way of generating concepts from other organisations, by discussion and collaboration with their current or former employees. The current employees of other organisations are sometimes willing to share their concepts, either in an exchange that requires the innovation manager to share something with the other organisations, or by an offer that does not require the innovation manager to share or do anything in response (although in this latter form of sharing, there is often an expectation that the innovation manager will develop the concepts in a way that benefits the other organisations). If the other organisations’ current employees are not willing to share their concepts, then the innovation manager may try to hire some of the employees, and then ask them to share their concepts. The employees’ ability to share their concepts may be restricted by the contracts from their former employment.
Often, there will be a small number of major concepts that can be identified from other organisations, and a large number of relatively minor variations on these major concepts. For example, a restaurant may sell food and drink to customer standing at a counter, or sell it to customers seated at a table. These two major concepts have many minor variations such as the size of the table, the clothes of the staff, and the speed of service. An innovator collecting concepts for how to serve customers should aim to identify all major concepts and to note the forms of the minor variations, so that it would be enough to say that the table size varies without describing every size in detail. Concepts can be collected from a fixed group of organisations, such as all large organisations in an industry, or until concepts repeat over many successive organisations.
Consider the example of a hotel manager who wants to improve the reception service at their up-market hotel in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The needs for the reception service were identified and summarised in the last blogpost, and include “the reception staff calculate bills correctly”. The manager discusses with her employees who used to work for other hotels what approaches those hotels have used for recording and paying bills. The manager identifies three major concepts from these discussions: the use of written records, the use of a spreadsheet, and the use of hotel management software. Minor variations in the concepts occur in the equipment used to store the information, the place of storage, the process of data entry and retrieval, the way that records about the stay and records about payment are linked, the way calculations are made, and the people who can use the billing system. The manager then decides to build on one of the concepts by reading written reports of different hotel management software in the trade press and online, to identify additional, more detailed concepts.
Generating concepts from experts
Experts may also be a valuable source of concepts. They are people with a high level of knowledge or skill in areas connected to the proposed product or service. Their expertise may be broad – for example, they may be an agricultural expert who provides concepts to farmers – or it may be connected to a specific part of the product or service, as when a scientist provides concepts about technology to a household goods designer. Experts may be particularly useful when identifying concepts that are very new and have not yet been applied in a product or service, or when an innovation project is very technically demanding.
There are a number of ways that an innovation manager can get concepts from experts. One way is to examine their writing, which could be in the general press, trade publications, or academic literature. Another way is to attend their public events, where they may present concepts or ideas, or discuss them with their audience. A manager could also meet an expert in person, by setting up a meeting where the manager describes their innovation challenge and the expert suggests ways of responding to it. The manager could go further and hire an expert, either as an employee or consultant.
Concepts provided by experts may be numerous and diverse in content. A manager may want to collect them from just a few experts, in order to identify the most prominent and promising concepts, particularly in respect of newly emerging technologies that have not yet been applied to consumer products or services.
An example of concept generation from experts is provided by SRK Consulting in the D.R.C. A large mining company operating in the country wanted to introduce a discussion process with local communities, as part of a government-mandated scheme for social development. The company contacted SRK to plan and deliver the process. SRK was able to bring knowledge of local mining, languages, traditions, and partners to identify a suitable concept and then realise it (link).