If your organisation wants to innovate, and it should, I recommend learning about farming in the desert. To wit, let me ask you an important trivia question: What’s the best product to farm in a drought-stricken region? If you guessed ‘fish,’ you may graduate to the top of the class. You are fit to head up innovation for the brand. 


Odd though it seems, fish is the ideal food product for water-stressed regions. The critical goal is maximum production of nutritious food with a minimum of water. It requires 750 litres of water to grow just 1 kilogram of wheat, but only 10 litres to farm 1 kilogram of edible fish. 


Sometimes we ask the wrong questions. 


A farmer in a water-stressed environment, such as the Middle East or Namibia, might start by asking, ‘How can I optimise my use of water to grow as much wheat as possible?’It turns out that’s the wrong question. The right question is, ‘How can I provide the most nutrition possible given the amount of water available?’ Or, more simply, ‘What are we actually trying to achieve here?’ 


The answer to this question will be some variation on: ‘We are trying to feed as many people as possible.’If you then ask, ‘How do we feed as many people as possible?’,‘wheat’will not be the answer. 


So, what does your organisation do? And now let me ask you you: What does it really do? With surprisingly regularity, operationally-minded leaders miss this distinction, striving for optimisation of what is, rather than revolution and market-leadership based on what could be, if they asked the right question. 


A well-known example of this useful twist in perceptions was given by a manager who asked his staff, who manufactured 16-inch drill bits, what their customers buy from them. Predictably, they answered, ‘16-inch drill bits.’ 


‘No,’ he corrected. ‘They buy 16-inch holes in walls.’ 


And it’s true. Consumers - entire markets - couldn’t care less about the delivery mechanism. They care about the result. Their decision to purchase is invested in the pain they hope you will solve for them, the dream you help them to achieve, or the change in their lives after you've been. 


As such, a paint company’s customers don’t buy paint. They buy beauty, durability and resale value, and if you can find a different way to provide that, you are a market-changing innovator. A bride-to-be doesn’t buy a cameraman’s high-end equipment for her big day. She buys the ability to capture beautiful memories to last a lifetime, and the ‘ways to do that’ have been evolving over time. My own executive clients don’t buy books, speeches and training seminars; they couldn’t care less about them. They buy market leadership, increased revenue and answers to expensive questions. This places an obligation to innovate on me, even as a provider of a complete intangible. 


Consider some examples of things our species needs to achieve. ‘We need a bridge!’No, you don’t: you need a way to get across a river. A bridge is just one option.


‘We need to beat our enemy’s army!’ No, you don’t: you need to win a war. Fighting their army is the least efficient, most costly and most dangerous way to do so. 


‘We need to beat our competitors!’No, you don’t: you need to grow your customer base. You need to be prosperous. Comparing yourself to competitors will only limit your thinking. 


Winning the war doesn’t necessarily mean beating your competitors. It means getting new business. That could mean something very different. We have a bad habit of getting hung up on the wrong thing. We focus on the way it has always been done, rather than what we are trying to achieve. 


In business, we tend to get bogged down in delivery mechanisms, and in doing so we lose sight of why our clients buy from us. The ‘why’can be a rich source of innovation. 


To give an example, Richard Mulholland, founder and CEO of South African presentation firm Missing Link, tells the story of having a safety gate installed at his home by a well-known South African brand. It was installed in a space that had a wedge-shaped, angled roof directly above it. Consequently, he ended up with a security gate that had a hole above it that anyone could easily climb through. 


Mulholland took a photo of himself climbing through the gap, and sent it to the rep at the security company. Not one to waste words, he simply wrote ‘WTF?’in the subject line and hit ‘send’.  


The rep’s response, a few minutes later, was an equally brief ‘Lol ☺’ 


Richard then phoned him and asked, ‘What is this?’, to which the man responded, ‘That’s the gate you bought.’ 


Richard replied (and rightly so), ‘I didn’t buy a gate. I bought safety for my family.’


The rep thinks he sells gates. What do you think you sell? And how do you figure out what you really do? 


I believe in the old exercise of asking five levels of ‘why?’ Try it as an exercise with your team. Here’s how it goes: start by asking why people buy your product. Your staff will generally volunteer a surface-level answer, usually along the lines of ‘because they need it’. 


You then ask, ‘Why do they need it?’and the answer might be something along the lines of ‘they need it to …’ 


You then ask, ‘Why do they need to …’ 


Keep going in this manner. You may arrive at some interesting new perspectives, interpretations of what your customers dothat you may never have considered. Once you have arrived at a set of things your customers use your product to do, you are presented with two interesting opportunities. The first is to work backwards from that to a different starting point, and thereby innovate new solutions for your customers’needs.


The second is to face the threats to your current product or offering. If your customers are trying to achieve a very specific outcome, and you can think of a different way in which they could achieve that outcome, you have identified competition to your existing product. You have identified a potential threat. 


Now, will you own that threat and create the new market? Or will you try to ignore it until it runs you over? 


The wrong way to think about it: We sell gates. 

The right way to think about it: We sell safety. Now, what else can we do that achieves that? 



Douglas Kruger is a professional speaker and business coach, and the author of a number of business books. His latest titles, published by Penguin Random House, include, ‘Own Your Industry - How to Position Yourself as an Expert,’ and the new release, ‘Relentlessly Relevant - 50 Ways to Innovate.’ See him in action at www.douglaskruger.co.za 


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Douglas’s articles are always free for use in your magazines, newspapers or e-zines. Many have been previously published in magazines like Entrepreneur or online forums like Bizcommunity.com. They focus on entrepreneurship, public speaking, expert positioning and innovation. Please attribute any articles used, and drop Douglas an email so that he can also publicise your title.