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The five lenses: Creating ideas that win

In this brief audio presentation, Bain Partner James Allen discusses a creative strategy process that companies are using to identify promising ideas and turn them into business opportunities.

  • February 12, 2014
  • min read


The five lenses: Creating ideas that win

Finding new opportunities can be one of the biggest challenges for left-brained leaders of companies. That's because many companies rely on a traditional brainstorming process that might yield hundreds of small ideas, but few that evolve into ventures worth exploring. In this brief audio presentation, Bain Partner James Allen discusses a different approach that companies are using to identify promising ideas and turn them into business opportunities.



Slide 1: Thank you very much for joining. This is Jimmy Allen. I am co-leader of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and I want to talk about something we call the "five lenses," which may be a useful tool as you think about creative strategy development.

Slide 2: So before we get into a discussion of the five lenses, let’s remind ourselves of what typically happens in organizations as they try to go through brainstorming. Now, most of us are left-brained—people in most organizations are left-brained—which means we’re pretty suspicious of those right-brained creative types.

But we allow them to come in and they come in, usually ask for a bean-bag chair and maybe some black turtleneck sweaters for some guy with hair gel. And they brainstorm away and come up with a ton of Post-it Notes.

We allow that to happen. Why? Because we control the funnel. And we send those Post-it Notes through the funnel like lambs to the slaughter and guess what? Almost nothing comes out, which almost reconfirms the superiority of the left-brained organization against those creative types, but of course the problem is, we don’t come up with any new ideas.

Slide 3: And that’s a problem—not to come up with new ideas. What happens with traditional brainstorming is that it fails to achieve results for a couple reasons. Number one is we’re taking Post-it Notes through a funnel designed for things like factory openings and closings. So these aren't real commercial ideas. These are just Post-it Notes.

Also, we think of every one of them as a one-off. So rather than say "We are going to build a capability to be a great service organization and then see how these ideas compare," we take one Post-it Note and the first thing we notice is that it would be too expensive to build a service organization, so we reject it. Or we stop thinking about the mobilization challenges and everything just looks too hard vs. the cost. Where if thought from the outset "What would it take for us to get started?" maybe some of these ideas would be better.

The problem is that we end up with very few creative new ideas to challenge the status quo of the organization.

Slide 4: So to try to deal with those issues—at least what we've observed in a lot of organizations—is something we call the five lenses process, which we think can help. And there are a bunch of things going on with it.

The first of which, is you need a vocabulary to separate what’s going on. So we talked about Post-it Notes. Well, those are just ideas. They’re just a very small part of the process. They obviously can be put in clusters. And then you can begin to identify an opportunity.

An opportunity would be where someone could begin to think about a P&L and someone could begin to think about what joint venture partner you may use. And then with enough opportunities, what you’ll start to identify is themes: We want to dominate from moving to a product to a service organization, we want to own the environmental space.

And themes then become big enough to be part of the strategic dialogue. And typically with creative strategy, you’re looking at the status quo vs. several opportunities or differences represented by themes. So it needs to be big enough. That’s point one.

Point two is that great strategies come from the bottom up and top down. You’ll have some parts of the organization coming up with great ideas, moving to clusters and moving to opportunities, and you’ll have some parts of the organization dealing with big strategy questions and identifying new themes. And those create new opportunities.

The third part is that, actually, process matters—how you do this. You need something that gets the right people in the room and has the right stimuli that can create good creative ideas.

The other thing is there’s a judo move that we think you can play with the organization, which is you have a lot of people that are left-brained that have been used traditionally in the funnel process to kill ideas. We like to change their role and use them to build those ideas into opportunities and themes. It takes the same analytical criticism. It takes the same thought processes. But they turn into business builders, not simply destroyers, at this stage.

The other thing to point out is that strategy itself is inherently quite creative if done well—meaning that, if you know the business definition of the industry in which you compete, you understand the rules of the game, you've defined your core. Then perfectly good questions against that are: Should we try to change the business definition? Should we try to change the rules of the game? And so on.

And then the final point I’ll make is that good strategy anyway drives to some sort of actionable opportunity and so you've got to get to the point where you've identified real opportunities that have emerged from this.

Slide 5: I talked about how you identify themes, and that’s that red block in the middle. That’s what we’re trying to get to. One whole part of creativity is if we get there, what would be the second and third generation move to make that even bigger. And people love to spend their energy there. But we’ve found that a lot of the most creative strategy comes from thinking about the first and second steps that get you to that theme.

And it’s so critical to the process because it actually is about how do we make this start to happen? How do we do something that builds off where we are today and starts us on the journey? In our experience, that’s where some of most creative input comes.

Slide 6: So let me just quickly try to bring this to life with a real example. This is from a mobile company over a decade ago. But they were trying to think through a real creative strategy to dealing with 3G and, interestingly, from the organization a lot of technical people were coming up with hundreds of ideas about what to do with 3G in terms of data and voice offerings.

From the top down, they had a big strategic concern, which is that 3G was coming on, and that was much more likely to bring new data problems. But the way the mobile industry was, it would be a terrible proposition for consumers because no one was controlling the full proposition.

From the bottom up, a lot of the marketers had gotten together and had begun to cluster those ideas around an offering they felt was right for "young, active, fun." These were early adopters of the technology and that was boiling around in the organization just at the time that, from the top down, they said "Look, we’re going to have to build our own end-to-end proposition, working with a set of handset manufacturers, working with a set of content suppliers. But we’re going to have to do this if we’re going to grow in this space.” And that coalesced around developing an online community for young, active, fun consumers in the new, emerging data space.

And if you looked afterward at the strategy, it was very hard to know whether that creative idea came from the bottom or the top, and it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that they then understood how they were going to control the ecosystem, what was the proposition they were going to develop, and so on. And from that came a proposition that was the biggest selling at its time across Europe.

Slide 7: So as promised at the outset, let’s now get specific about some ideas for you as you think about how you work on creative strategy.

The first thing is the people in the room matter. Too often, creative strategy is done with the same government structure that is used for normal strategy, which are the people who are the big wigs in the organization in charge of certain bureaucratic things.

For creative strategy, you better get some creative people in the room. And these are often people who that aren't traditionally in these kind of normal strategy discussions.

The process matters. You want a combination of left- and right-brained people. You need the right-brain to really develop those creative ideas. You need the left-brain to build them into themes. But as I said in the beginning, then you need a whole new way of creativity to say: "How do I change those themes into first actions?"

And then you need stimuli. And we just have a practical idea for stimuli that we've seen be used again and again in organizations.

Slide 8: So the one thing we've seen that is quite helpful in really starting the idea generation and taking it through to strategic themes is something we call the "five lenses." And frankly, the lenses can differ from time to time, but typically you start with deep consumer and customer insights. So you’re looking at data around what’s happening with customers, but also company case examples of how a different company has taken that idea and driven it to a transformation.

You then want to look at what’s happened with shifts in ecosystems. What companies have changed the rules of the game? How have they taken advantage of profit-pool shifts? How have they disintermediated the value chain? When you take those case examples and apply them to your industry, it becomes very interesting.

Now one thing you’ll notice is these lenses are overlapping, and that’s on purpose. We’re not trying to be mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive. We’re trying to give you lots of overwhelming thoughts and ideas that are overlapping and not worry about what category they’re in. Often in organizations, you run through maybe five case examples and only one generates an idea, so you move on and move quickly through it.

Another lens that has been recently used and very useful is sustainability. If we try to think about how to make our industry more sustainable, what would that do in terms of actions on the value chain? How might that change what we do globally and what we do locally?

Another example that’s often used is the whole issue of long-term trends. And we love to throw lots of these. And you’ve got a lot of them in your organization that people have collected. What are the big technology trends? What are some interesting industry trends? Use those to stimulate more ideas.

And then, what are the Repeatable Models® you have and you've seen other people use to do something interesting and new in your business.

And again the idea is that across this list, you may in the course of two or three hours introduce 100 different quick ideas to your organization, all of which are used to generate those initial ideas, move them to clusters, move them to opportunities and, ultimately, to themes.

Slide 9: Just to bring to life what a one-pager looks like this is looking at Tetra Pak—all external data.

One of the amazing things about Tetra Pak is that they created a repeatable model where the initial sell to their customers—the system—needed to pay for itself within the first year of their customers’ savings. That’s just an extraordinary concept, and it leads to the question, "What could we do, as we think about our creative strategy, where our product would actually pay for itself within the first year?" So you would ask questions about that, thinking if there’s anything you can do there. Obviously, if that doesn't ring any bells, you move on to the next one, and hopefully your organization has created hundreds of these examples just to stimulate thinking.

So let me stop there. The idea is that you have to move against the natural tendencies of the left-brained organization to really use great creative input to drive toward themes, and as you do that think about the people in the room and think about the stimuli you use and, where possible, leverage the experiences of your people in doing it.

Slide 10: So guys, thanks very much. I know this has been quick, but I hope it gives you at least one technique that you can use as you try to fight through the left-brained organization. If you want to talk to me about it—you can tell I’m pretty passionate—this is how you can get in touch with me. I hope you join us for these kinds of things in the future.


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