Do you ever wonder where children get all the energy, enthusiasm, and endorphins?
Sometimes I can't help but wonder just how much more productive, creative, and innovative we would all be, as adults, if only we had the same level of energy, enthusiasm, and a constant rush of endorphins and actually put them to work! Children are naturally so imaginative, expressive, passionate, and fearless! At the same time, they are curious, eager to learn, and not afraid to try out new things. There's something about children's creative energy, fearless imagination, sheer optimism, and endless curiosity that is so contagious. Unless they are crying or screaming (YIKES!), children have this unique power to make people around them happy and lighten up any situation.
As a visiting professor at Bangkok University School of Entrepreneurship and Management, I wanted to help my 40 graduate students bring back the creative energy, fearless imagination, passion about life, sheer optimism, and childlike curiosity often lost in the process of growing up and fitting in. In my 'Opportunity Creation' session*, I wanted them to have fun with Entrepreneurship. I wanted them to think big, think different, and think smart now that they were still in a safe, open, and supportive space for trial and error and experimentation. To me, Entrepreneurship should be about pushing both visible and invisible boundaries to see and seize untapped opportunities. Entrepreneurship in the classroom should be like a science experiment (I will elaborate on this later in this post), not a boring lecture solely on how to put all the resources together or how to plan the next steps in their ventures. Students can read about management or go-to business strategies in their own time, even though, quite frankly, these things can only be learned in practice. I didn't want to just help my students finish a 'business' jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece, step by step, just to end up with a predetermined and fixed vision of success. Instead, I wanted to provide them with building blocks as a starting point, from which they can build their own versions of success, see, and seize endless possibilities. In other words, I wanted to give them the LEGO bricks or the Tangram puzzles to spark their imagination and entrepreneurial spirit. The rest is up to them, whether they are capable of building an entire city, a cat robot or anything else in between...or whether they decide to knock them all down and end up with a pile of, well, nothing.
Before we can seize any opportunity, we have to first be able to see it. While other people see a 'door', we can choose to see something more, something different, something out of the ordinary. To entrepreneurs, a door is not just a long rectangular piece of wood, fiberglass, aluminum or vinyl with a door lever or a door knob. If we think out of the ordinary, we can go beyond the most basic physical characteristics or the literal meaning of a door. For example, we can reinterpret a 'door' as an 'entrance' or an 'exit'. When I asked my students about what a door really is and what it actually does, answers varied: separating one room from another, separating the inside from the outside, protecting, completing (i.e. a house or an apartment without a door would look and feel 'incomplete'), and territorial marking. Based on these answers, the interpretations of a 'door' as an 'entrance' or an 'exit' alone can already lead to many other opportunities. Why not an entrance inspired by the shape, aesthetics, and feel (a sense of solitude, protection from the outside world, and becoming one with nature) of a cave? Why not an entrance to your bedroom or private library inspired by the Phoenix staircase leading up to Dumbledore's office in Harry Potter**, except with your own spirit animal? Why not a long slide from your bedroom all the way to your car so that you won't have to disturb and wake up the entire family if you have to leave the house early for work or if you want to sneak out at night? Why not an automatic car wash machine that can double as both a door and a fast and convenient way to clean your car before going out without having to stop by a gas station? For those who think they are not creative enough or artsy enough, just try this method: reinterpret things and even people that you think can never be more than they are - your workspace, team, water bottle, wallet, business, relationship, life - and see the magic happen!
As I mentioned, opportunity creation is a process comparable to a science experiment. It involves drafting a hypothesis about the opportunity, designing idea experiments, manipulating a desirable environment for idea development, observing, making connections, catalyzing reactions and interactions of different ideas, collecting additional data, learning from trial and error, prototyping, testing, iterating, evaluating, and concluding. I asked my students to 'hypothesize' the functions and benefits of a wallet, another everyday item many of us may take for granted. The hypotheses included nothing but 'the ordinary': keeping money safe and holding multiple cards. Then, I encouraged my students to manipulate new contexts for idea development and, from there, make new connections back to what a wallet would really do (functions) and how it would really help (benefits) different target groups.
For example, a senior citizen would really benefit from having a micro GPS tracking chip securely attached to his/her wallet. The first benefit is, he/she can easily find the wallet if it ever goes missing. The second benefit is, the senior citizen's children can rest assured that he/she is safe as the current location can be tracked in real-time. Another indirect benefit is, now that everyone feels safe and confident, mobility and independence increases for the elderly, whilst burdens and concerns are relieved for the children.
If we were to innovate further and sell the same wallet to the senior citizen's children, who may also be parents of young children, we could remove the GPS tracking chip and instead add compartments specifically designed to help modern parents organize the 'pocket money' for their young children. For example, we can have separate compartments for the parents' 3 children or separate compartments for different purposes, such as food and snacks at school, piano class, or an upcoming school camp. This little method of innovation can really help with modern parents' day-to-day organization and medium-to-long-term budget planning. As we can see here, we have the 'same' product at hand, but even the smallest innovations can offer a brand-new value proposition, a new direction, or even a new business!
Inspired by both door and wallet innovations, my students went on to their ultimate entrepreneurial challenge of the day: The Coke Challenge. Coca-Cola or Coke is such an iconic, popular, and familiar brand we all grew up with. Other than doors and wallets, Coke is another example of something we may take for granted simply because it's so 'classic and comfortable' rather than 'new and exciting'. If we see Coke as simply 'a (rich brown colored) carbonated soft drink', it ends there; there would be no more room for creativity or innovation.
To challenge my students, I listed 5 different target segments: elderly, female, environmentally friendly, business executives, and tourists. Each team of 6 had to innovate Coke around not just 1 particular segment, but 2 (selected and paired at random). The teams ended up with the following pairs: 'female and environmentally friendly', 'elderly and environmentally friendly', 'business executive and tourist' (i.e. a foreign businessman/woman on a business trip), 'business executive and elderly', and 'female and tourist'. To complete The Coke Challenge, the students had to reimagine and reengineer everything about the classic Coke***: its customer persona, packaging, color, brand personality, slogan, brand endorser, taste, sensation, benefits, and promotional efforts.
For the first 15 minutes, the teams envisioned their new versions of Coke. My first observation was that every team changed the packaging of the classic Coke. Changing the packaging is one of the quickest and most obvious ways to change the way a product is perceived, just like how changing our outfits or haircuts can create a whole new 'look'. The team that got 'business executive and elderly' as their brief was inspired by a sleek and classy wine bottle that would not only go well with a senior business executive's lavish lifestyle and all the business dinners, but be designed to evoke a sense of nostalgia. When asked to tell the story they had in mind during the development of their customer persona, the team talked about sipping Coke wine whilst sharing with each other stories and memories from the past. The theme 'nostalgia' is one of the familiar and recurring themes for Coke's marketing efforts. However, elevating the brand image by replicating the elegant design of a wine bottle and changing the frequency of use from 'everyday or anytime' to 'special occasions or smart casual events' births a new opportunity that anyone who thinks Coke is just 'a carbonated soft drink' would never think about. The team that got 'female and tourist' not only changed the packaging from the red classic Coke can to a squeeze pouch to make it easy for the tourist to keep in her backpack without spillage, but turned the typical rich brown liquid into ready-to-eat Jell-O. The actual Coke liquid and fizziness are stored inside the small beads inside the Jell-O. This team really impressed me because they did a lot more than simply responding to the brief I gave them. They designed their very own refill stations, widely available at touristy spots, for tourists to refill their Coke whilst traveling around in the Bangkok heat. They innovated not just the product itself, but the entire customer experience. The team that got 'elderly and environmentally friendly' focused on two things: natural ingredients with health benefits for the elderly and user-friendly packaging (not just the aesthetics or brand image alone). They added ginseng, known for its health benefits and popularity with the elderly, to the original Coke, whilst reducing sugar and fizziness for health-conscious older customers. Aware of the potential danger and likeliness of dropping things, the team designed an easy-to-open lid and added a grip on the actual bottle.
For the next 20 minutes or so, the teams had to divide their time and their team members between two very important tasks: prototyping their designs and designing print ads for their Coke innovations. Given limited resources to use for prototyping, limited time that had to be divided between two things and spent wisely, limited people, and limited space for 'advertising' (in real life, they would have to pay for all of these with their own hard-earned money!), the teams learned to work with constraints. This part of the entrepreneurial challenge allowed my students to understand what I meant when I compared 'innovating around constraints' to 'innovating around the Tangram****'. With the Tangram, we would only have 7 pieces, also known as our resources, to work with. In the face of constraints, childlike curiosity, fearless imagination, and creative energy come into play. 'I wonder if this Tangram triangle can be more than just a duck's mouth?' 'Can it also be the mainsail of a sailboat or the roof of a house?' Throughout this part of the activity, grownups suddenly became childlike (without the crying and screaming mentioned earlier in this post, of course). They were running around to compete for the best equipment for their prototypes, cutting, drawing, coloring, imagining, and laughing together throughout the process. Because the 'resources' were so limited, they had to be creative not just with their Coke innovations, but with their approaches. For example, the team with the brief 'business executive and elderly' had to use a black marker to color in an entire piece of light pink paper (because we didn't have anything black available) to create their sleek and classy black packaging that would go with their 'Black is the new black' Coke slogan. Other teams used their own plastic bottles or cans as molds for their designs. It's the strangest thing to realize that constraints can actually boost creativity. When we don't have much, we have to make the most of what we have or we have to pivot. The latter would then lead to other possibilities beyond what you settled for in the first place.
The success of The Coke Challenge ultimately served as a reminder for me that we all still have our creative energy, fearless imagination, and childlike curiosity instilled in us. With growing up, these things get lost or suppressed somewhere along the way. Instead, we developed the need to impress others, fit in, conform to certain standards and expectations, and fulfill our roles and responsibilities. But getting lost or suppressed doesn't mean our curiosity and imagination are gone forever; they just need to be dusted off, practiced, and put to use. I think the words 'creativity' and 'innovation' are overused, but underestimated. The power of creativity and innovation can bring even the most mundane things (a typical door and a boring wallet) back to life and make something good (a can of ice-cold Coke on a hot day) even better.
Whether you work in an office and are stuck with a dead-end project or help run an old family business that seriously needs a modern twist or have your own venture up and running and want to take it to the next level, I think the Coke Challenge and all the tidbits I mentioned throughout the post (door and wallet innovations) can really help you. Just change Coke, doors, and wallets to something more relevant to your business challenge. The last thing to remember is to stop solving jigsaw puzzles (a business metaphor, not the actual jigsaw puzzles) if you ever want to become an entrepreneur! Nothing kills creativity like our obsession with getting things right in one go, planning every step, sorting things in groups just to put them all back together, and handling resources rather than building things!
Train yourself to see your entire creative landscape as the Tangram: it doesn't matter how much or how little you have at hand because your entrepreneurial spirit will somehow find ways. Train yourself to see every opportunity as your LEGO bricks: anything is possible, anything is capable of being constructed, reconstructed or even deconstructed as long as you take action and never let go of your innate curiosity and imagination.