Chris Gentile was managing the design and engineering for advanced nuclear plants when his brothers asked him to help them with a different kind of engineering challenge: how to mass-produce holograms for use in toys. That challenge—which he solved, by the way, to thrill of millions of action-figure fans—reset his career’s course.
Gentile has since managed the R&D efforts of new technologies for toy products, theme parks, computer input devices, video games, 3-D web graphics technology, and virtual reality systems, along with their related consumer launch and marketing campaigns. These products have generated over $5.2 billion in retail sales.
You have likely come across some of his work. If you ever tried the Nintendo Power Glove, rode Disney World’s DisneyQuest (the first immersive virtual reality theme park ride) or watched Cablevision’s VOOM (the first all-HDTV cable channel), you have been a beneficiary of his technical creativity. Beyond these, his boardroom walls are filled with figurines, toys, software boxes, and more of his inventions.
So, when I got a chance to sit down with Gentile and pick his brain for a couple of hours, I felt like a young monk climbing the mountain to learn the secret. I’m sure in the two hours I had I did not divine the full formula, but here is what I learned about how to generate a profitable breakthrough idea:
Step 1: Change the question
Gentile was once asked by some researchers to help them figure out how they might commercialize robots they had been working on. When Gentile stepped into their lab, they eagerly walked him over to their robots that were swinging their arms in their best effort to mimic human movement. But Gentile got distracted by some computer screens across the room where he saw stick-figure depictions of the robots moving seamlessly. He asked, “What are those?” and learned that the researchers had developed software to read and depict their movement. Gentile’s eyes gleamed and he said, “Forget the robots!” He had changed the question from "How can we commercialize robots?" to "How can we commercialize the software?" The idea led to a new form of more realistic animation for video games and movies.
Step 2: Find a new metaphor
Like many great innovators, Gentile navigates the world through metaphors linking the physical and digital worlds, personal and work lives, fluidly through analogy. His newest project, Family iBoard, for example, is based on his view that Facebook has become like an annoying shopping mall, where anyone can enter your space, look at your pictures, poke you, and ask to be your friend. So Gentile has conceived of something better: your house under lock and key where only your family members can enter, sit together, and share the family photo album. Fully encrypted, your personal history—your pictures, birth certificate copies, and even family recipes—cannot be downloaded or shared unless you explicitly give permission first. The beauty of building your business around a new metaphor is that it creates a coherence no one else can copy. The core metaphor informs the thousands of small decisions that define your product and strategy.
Step 3: Reuse what you have
We associate invention with “new,” but often the most promising inventions repurpose the old. This concept is fundamental to the growth of great companies and central to one my favorite books on innovation, The Alchemy of Growth, which shows that great companies grow by leveraging assets they have built in old businesses to create new businesses. For example, Disney’s animation activities gave it access to characters, which gave it the content to build theme parks, which gave it the skills to go into hospitality. Gentile follows the same pattern.
It started when his wife was pregnant. He’d sign up to parenting websites, but they started advertising walkers when he and his wife were still thinking about cribs. He decided there needed to be an app that grew with you. This idea led to a product called iBoard that he eventually built and offered to companies like financial advisory firm Ameriprise. It needed a product that grew with new advisors, giving them just the content they needed to take the next step in the long process of being certified. Because Ameriprise played in the highly regulated financial services industry, it demanded extremely stringent safety measures. By building such measures into his product, he had something that attracted music labels and firms like Lexus that wanted to communicate with their customers and dealers securely. The capabilities he built serving them gave him what he needed to launch Family iBoard.
Step 4: Perform a quick and dirty test
Gentile gets lots of ideas, so he needed to be able to pan through them quickly for the gold. One key is to be able to conduct a quick and inexpensive concept test using pieces that are already available. When he came up with the idea for the “Power Glove Air Band,” a glove that allows you to virtually play multiple instruments, he wanted to test its viability before incurring big R&D costs. So he researched and found that high-level scientists were using a “VPL Data Glove,” which he explained he could “easily adapt to show what a consumer product could be like for various applications, with the Air Band concept being just one.”
I’m surely oversimplifying a process that Gentile has honed over decades. But even if I am just scratching the surface of the formula that has allowed Gentile to invent products that have produced over $5 billion in retail sales, there must be an itch in your business worth taking aim at. Ask yourself:
1. If you reversed the question you have been asking for the past few weeks, what question would you end up with?
2. What metaphor is your competitor using and what alternative metaphor could you battle them with?
3. What can you reuse from your current (or past) business to create something new?
4. What quick and dirty test can you perform to test the viability of the idea you created through steps 1-3?
[Image: Flickr user Franck Vervial]