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The Four Parts Of The “What If” Innovation Process

Here’s how one business is tapping into creative solutions to help Uber drivers earn the fee they deserve.

The Four Parts Of The “What If” Innovation Process
[Photo: Flickr user cg\ v]

All companies want to be known for innovation–from increased research and development budget to swanky innovation labs. How do you make sure your efforts–and dollars–will lead to actual advancements?

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According to an October 2014 business R&D and innovation survey from the National Science Foundation, companies spent $302 billion on research and development in the United States in 2012, a 2.8% increase from the $294 billion spent in 2011.

Creativity and innovation are processes, and big budgets don’t necessarily lead to huge, market-changing ideas. I think everyone has a creative muscle that can be strengthened to generate better results, regardless of the monetary investment. Imagine if all it took to create a better world through innovation was a little creative conditioning?

Inspired by this thought, my company Motivate Design launched WIT Studios, Work, Innovation and Thought Studios. These studios use a variety of techniques, including the What If technique,. This uses the What If Technique (WIT), to teach anyone–entrepreneurs, corporations, and employees–how to unlock innovative thinking by reframing issues, cultivating curiosity, and increasing creativity.

How The WIT Studio Process Works

Here’s a simple example to illustrate how to use this technique and apply it to a business problem. When I take Uber, I usually speak with the driver. I’m curious by nature. Uber has disrupted the industry and made my life easier.

Recently, Uber increased the cut they take from drivers. I’ve learned from conversations that drivers feel the relationship is less than fair. After hearing about the financial struggles some drivers face, I thought I’d apply some creative conditioning to this situation–run an internal WIT studio–to explore a more creative win-win model.

This starts by outlining a problem statement. A great problem statement contains four parts:

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  1. The Problem Space
  2. The Goal Space
  3. The Consequence
  4. The Barriers And Gaps

It’s also important to approach problems with empathy, identify our excuses, and develop a way forward.

Part 1: The Problem Space
This is the condition that prevents the goal state from being achieved. I hate that drivers make less money, even though ridership could increase. I’d also like to do more with the time I spend in an Uber than check my email or play Candy Crush. Think about the status quo. What do you expect? What’s overdone?

Part 2: The Goal Space
This details the desired outcome. An Uber experience should be fun, enjoyable, and profitable for both the driver and rider. I’ll use a ride service anyway, so why not make it something that I can’t wait to do? I shouldn’t feel bad drivers are making less money. You can use “should” or “shouldn’t” because it’s how you want the experience to be in a perfect world, without limitations.

Part 3: The Consequence
What’s going to change if I solve this problem? Why am I solving it? Begin small and build up: Why is this meaningful? How will it help people or benefit business, consumers, and the industry? How could it benefit or change the world?

Part 4: The Barriers and Gaps
Identify the missing components or reasons why the problem hasn’t been solved. “The reason we haven’t been able to close this [gap] is [these barriers].”

We realized Uber’s recent changes don’t translate into a good experience for riders and drivers because the compensation model has changed. Barriers can emerge from almost any area–social, or technological.

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These four components–what it could be, what it is right now, why it matters and what is blocking–lead to a powerful problem statement, and lay the foundation to productively use the What If Technique.

The Uber Problem Statement

Uber has decreased its prices, but these lower prices were passed on to drivers; and, simultaneously, Uber increased the percentage they take. This means drivers now make only $250-$300 per night rather than $500–that’s an uber boo! We want to disrupt the Uber experience and driver compensation model by delivering an unexpected, win-win solution.

Great–now let’s discuss the one rule of WIT: Don’t judge. Don’t judge others, the ideas, or yourself. Some will sound stupid, but that’s not the point–the point is to release yourself from the usual rules and to open your mind to think creatively.

In a three-minute session, write as many “What If” questions as you can. Don’t worry about whether it’s possible or not–write it down. Then after the three minutes, share them. The more people the better. When you share, it sparks additional ideas.

Now, do two more three-minute rounds. Expand on ideas or get even crazier in your thinking. We had six people and came up with over 100 ideas. Here are three favorites:

  • What If: Cars had vending machines for food, personal items, or gift cards?
  • What If: People could pay more for drivers with better driving records?
  • What If: Uber offset personal charges by increasing corporate rates and/or pairing airlines and travel agencies to offer discounts for a door-to-door travel experience?

Some of these are probably in the works at Uber, but the point of these ideating rounds is to identify emerging themes. Which categories did you focus on? Which did you ignore? Are the ideas based around creating and supporting communities (connecting), or are you more interested in encouraging personal choice (customizing)? We defined these categories, crossed them out and moved on to new ones. We challenged ourselves to go beyond our usual patterns.

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Finally, we distilled by exploring convergent themes across all of our What Ifs. This part is key because it allows us to unify concepts and make ideas more robust.

The main themes included customization of the Uber experience, compensation tied to performance and community engagement. We learned people want good drivers to be paid more or rewarded. In fact, Uber even launched a VIP program that gives their most frequent riders access to black-level cars, driven by those with the highest ratings.

However, there are still opportunities for a more personalized Uber experience through partnerships with travel companies and goods and service providers, as well as more ways to utilize alternate revenue streams to increase driver compensation in positive ways.

Through additional exploration and definition, ideas are refined, articulated, and activated. In this case, our final opportunity space was spurred by this “What If” question: “What if Uber drivers offered sponsored goods and earned a percentage of in-car sales?”

By following the WIT process, you don’t uncover obvious solutions for making drivers more money, you also focus on innovation and delight. Creativity and innovation are consistent determiners of success. It’s not about total dollars. What if, in your own company, you made innovation an asset and creativity a source of strength–spending time on creative conditioning, asking “What if” or “Imagine if”–instead?

Mona Patel is founder and CEO at Motivate Design, a user experience and design thinking agency, and the recruiting firm UX Hires.

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Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.

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