Marketing innovation and creative thinking often come from the most unexpected places. When I worked in management consulting, my colleagues took on some of the world’s most challenging economic problems. What avenues are open to boutique hotel owners in Jamaica trying to compete with international chains? How can animation studios as far afield as Macedonia acquire international business? How would a fast-growing internet industry change the playing field for entrepreneurs in East Africa?
The answers to these challenges were not, as I initially suspected, buried in tomes about these specific disciplines. Instead, marketing breakthroughs occurred when we looked at how change happened in other domains and experimented with those ideas in a new context. It was here that I first learned to see that real innovation and big ideas happened when you brought together inspiration from different fields. Where does this nexus of innovation happen in content strategy, creativity, and marketing? And how can today’s talent push beyond the boundaries of what they already know to develop more interesting, engaging campaigns that challenge the obvious approach and generate real results?
Image attribution: Breather
Catalytic Questioning Through the Lens of Other Domains
Sometimes the process starts with asking the right questions. Hal Gregersen is a thought leader on the intersection of leadership and innovation. One of his approaches for stimulating innovation is the idea of catalytic questioning. He writes that leaders are often shielded from the information they most need in order to innovate, and by systematically engaging in catalytic questioning (an alternative to brainstorming), you can break through to big ideas: “The process simply allows one to concentrate on a problem—no matter how big or small—and examine alternative vantage points so they can arrive at a new and innovative solution.” He encourages leaders to find a writing surface, gather their team, center on a problem, and then start asking questions. Aim for 50, at least.
The key, of course, is how to ask good questions. One way to approach the process is to break your questions into three sections:
- Think through the lens of your field. How would people with your specific background or expertise approach the problem? What questions would they ask? Follow this train of thought as far as possible to see what unique advantages your perspective could give you.
- Ask questions through a general business lens. What questions would people ask if they were coming at this challenge through the perspective of finance, sales, or customer service, for example?
- Shift your perspective even further. What questions would people ask about this if their specialty was in a completely unrelated field, like biology, computer science, or economics? An easy way to do this is to find someone with that expertise and ask her what kinds of questions she’d ask. Another is to find research frameworks and general methodologies for different disciplines and adapt these questions to the challenge you’re trying to solve.
When you ask the right question, unexpected insights and inspiration can emerge.
Image attribution: Redd Angelo
Marketing Innovation and the Collective Brain
Bringing in insights from different domains is one of the easiest ways to tap into what researchers have called “the collective brain.” Research shows that innovation is rarely the product of a single individual or idea. Instead, it’s the confluence of the activities, thoughts, and efforts of multiple people. As Katie Dowbiggin and Michael Muthukrishna said, “Ideas flow in these collective brains, much like neurons fire in our individual brains. We see multiple ‘inventors’ of the same idea, because if the historical, cultural, and conceptual conditions exist in the collective brain for an invention to emerge, inevitably there will be multiple individuals at the nexus of these conditions. Or to put it another way, innovations don’t rely on a particular innovator any more than your thoughts rely on a particular neuron.”
One of the most important insights the authors offer is how to stimulate innovation: connect previously unconnected ideas. They use the example of Darwin decoding evolution as he traveled the world and studied a variety of inputs. As marketers, writers, and content strategists, it’s our job to tap into the collective brain and stimulate innovation. We have to push beyond the bubbles of our disciplines, read more widely than our industry, and understand the best practices in problem solving and connecting with audiences from different industries. For example:
- What can screenwriters teach you about writing a compelling story audiences will love?
- Could psychology help you more effectively connect with the emotions of your audience?
- Does an understanding of evolutionary biology give you perspective on your audience’s fears and desires?
- What would a deep dive into data analysis show in the hidden patterns that fuel your creativity?
- If you studied the techniques of an industry that’s had success in digital marketing, like B2B technology, could you apply them to a different industry like agribusiness or manufacturing?
Here are practical ways to find inspiration in other fields to push your creative thinking and help you innovate in unexpected ways.
Approach a Problem With a Tactic From Another Field
Participatory observation is a technique I learned studying anthropology and archeology. One way we made sense of what we saw in the field was by using a technique called card sorting. You write down every impression, detail, insight, and observation that seems important. Then you sit down with a fresh eye and “bucket” similar things together. It helps researchers understand how individuals cognitively understand different categories.
The same technique has been adapted to user experience (UX design). In a similar way, explore how an expert in a different field might attack a problem you’re facing. For example, could thinking like a medical researcher and starting your content strategy with a comprehensive literature review give you a different perspective than diving right in?
Learn to Listen and Read for Unexpected Insights by Widening Your Pool
As we get more established and go deeper into our field, our focus often narrows and our expertise gets deeper. In the marketing field, it’s easy to spend your spare time reading the latest business books, keeping up with marketing blogs, and scanning issues of the Harvard Business Review. While you can glean great ideas this way—and keeping up with your field will put you ahead of many of your peers—there are two weak spots:
- The top thinkers in your field are drawing from the same pool of ideas and intellectual predecessors.
- Your competition is most likely reading (and being inspired by) the same pool of limited material.
Instead, breakthrough ideas are more likely to come when you push the borders of your reading. For example, if you love books about marketing, explore adjacent ideas by reading books on innovation or entrepreneurship. Books that integrate ideas from multiple domains to solve a problem can inspire you to think differently.
Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations by Dan Ariely takes a broad look at the topic of human motivation. Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandburg teamed up to write Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience. What these, and many other great books, have in common is that they draw from sociology, history, business, economics, pop culture, and many other places to make a strong argument about a particular topic. For marketers, you can achieve the same by reading popular books outside your field, exploring the blogs and articles that have leaders in different fields buzzing right now, and taking a deep dive into how different disciplines talk about a specific issue. For example, you can find everyone from wildlife biologists to hospital administrators talking about the challenges of leadership, offering wildly different examples and perspectives, often unified by common themes.
Cast a Wider Net for Your Team
If you’re working on a team with others, consider bringing in people with different expertise. For example, many companies have learned that pairing a writer, a designer, and a data expert can result in a much stronger story than a writer working alone. Could a content strategy or marketing campaign be richer if it incorporated perspectives from around the company or looked at completely different underlying factors such as psychology, digital marketing technique, copywriting, and systems thinking? Be bold about imagining how different types of expertise could lead to more creative thinking and, by extension, marketing innovation and transformation.
Fostering real innovation is a challenge; as marketers, our goal is often just to improve by incremental percentages and keep the momentum going forward. But when you’re aiming for real marketing transformation and breakthrough creative thinking, you can’t let yourself get trapped in the box of your own domain. Break down the walls by seeking out the ways that other disciplines ask questions, solve problems, and look at issues. Read widely, find diverse thought partners, and think about the ways you can bring insights from one domain into another. The end result may be a campaign that takes your work in completely unexpected directions.
Featured image attribution: Shannon Kelley
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