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Our innovation seminar in New York City last week was stocked with a fascinating and diverse group of innovators.  From entrepreneurs to Fortune 100 corporate executives, and from retail to banking to technology to services, everyone left with a new outlook on developing innovative strategies.

History proves that greater diversity drives greater innovation, and this group of "outthinkers" delivered some serious results. Not only did participants generate over 500 strategic options for solving real-world challenges, they shared a number of fascinating cases that highlight the stratagems at work. Here is one that I thought would be particularly inspiring in today’s environment.

Finding Maya

The pattern "creating something out of the nothing" offers innovators one of the most productive tools for outmaneuvering the competition. It plays on an ancient principle that Hindus called "Maya." Maya is the tendency of humans to grow entranced with what is in front them, forgetting to look beyond the curtain.

As a famous Indian guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, once said, "Maya is so sweet to the body, like sugar or molasses."

Your peers have likely fallen entranced with the pieces on your industry’s game board. They are looking only for how they can move around the pieces that are already standing there. This limits their perceived options.
This is an opportunity for more creative strategic thinkers to take advantage by creating entirely new pieces, adding them to board, and transforming the game.  

Our research shows that nearly 30 percent of the most competitive companies of the decade have played on this concept in some way to trigger breakthrough growth. One participant (Thank you, Carolyn!) shared a fascinating example of this pattern at work: Japan’s White Day.

Japanese celebrate White Day exactly one month after Valentine’s Day. This holiday resembles Valentine’s Day, but is brilliantly designed to trigger even more spending than Valentine’s Day. Essentially the way the holiday functions is as follows:

1. On Valentine’s Day (February 14), only women are expected to give gifts of chocolate to men. Men do not return the favor.

2. Women give special chocolates to men with whom they are romantically involved, but additionally give less expensive chocolates and sweets to other men they know (e.g., coworkers).

3. One month later (March 14), Japan celebrates White Day during which men reciprocate the Valentine’s Day chocolates they received by giving a more expensive gift to each woman who gave them a gift.

Now this tradition did not just pop up spontaneously out of some ancient cultural tradition. It is believed that White Day was carefully "created out of nothing" by the National Confectionery Industry Association in 1978. It was clearly designed with an eye to expanding confectionary sales.

Think about it: each woman and man shares gifts with multiple people over two separate days. The spend potential associated with White Day is far superior to that of Valentine’s Day in the U.S.  By separating the holidays and holding it one month after Valentine’s Day, White Day explicitly forces both men and women to give gifts. In the U.S., it is not unusual that women only receive gifts and do not reciprocate to the men in their lives.

Expand your toolbox

In times when the idea of "stimulating spending" is at the top of my clients’ minds, it seems worthwhile to expand our toolbox. Rather than just offering more money, such as financing, discounts, buy-one-get-one-free, there has to be another way to stimulate new purchases. Is there a new buying occasion that you could create out of nothing?

Valentine’s Day as we now celebrate it was "social construction" created in 1847 by a Massachusetts card maker. The diamond engagement ring was invented by DeBeers. And White Day was carefully crafted by Japanese confectioners to stimulate new demand.

By understanding how individuals create "mental images" and how groups then form such "social constructions," you may unlock a breadth of new opportunities to stimulate new demand.

1. What could you create out of nothing today?
2. How would a new piece on your board do to your competition?