Whose business is it in an organization to look for ‘concepts’? Because concepts can occur to anyone at any time, it is everyone’s business to look for concepts. Like many things that are ‘everyone’s business’, concepts end up by being no one’s business. Of course, corporate strategy teams do a lot of concept thinking.
So do the marketing people. From time to time R&D people think of concepts when they are not busy pursuing the detail of implementation. Valuable concepts do emerge from various quarters.
Because concepts do not require a lab or scientists or technologists, there is no need for a defined ‘place’ or department whose specific job it is to look for and examine concepts. Competence, information and technology, however, are becoming commodities available to all. What will make the difference are the ‘value concepts’ which are designed and delivered.
Concepts can be copied with a ‘me-too’ and even obtained as part of an acquisition. Concepts can evolve step by step over time. Concepts can be deliberately designed. Old concepts can be revived (like coffee shops, which are re-invented every 50 years). Creative ideas do occur by chance, but the use of deliberate creative techniques (lateral thinking) can greatly increase the production of such ideas. In the same way, direct focus in a Concept R&D department would greatly increase the production of new concepts.
The new department would review concepts. What are the traditional concepts? How are they changing? What factors are driving these changes? Is it technology? Market forces? Fashion? What concepts are dying? Which are beginning to flag? What concepts are already dead? What concepts are beginning to emerge? What alternative concepts are in play? How successful are these alternative concepts? What new concepts are emerging in other fields - whether directly related or not? Could these concepts be borrowed?
This review process sensitises the mind to the repertoire of available concepts. In many cases there follows a realisation that traditional concepts have never really changed, even though the market (and technology) may have changed a great deal.
The Concept R&D department would pin-point concept needs both in response to other departments and in its own right. Such concept needs can be expressed in vague terms to begin with:
....We need a way of rewarding careful drivers.
....There is the concept of paid-up cards instead of debit cards.
....A word-of-mouth passed-on message would be very powerful.
....A very simple way of getting a mortgage would be useful.
....Can we develop a concept of having someone do the shopping for you?
....Can these things be personalised?
Once the focus has been set - and it can be very vague - then the first approach is to look around for standard ways of delivering that concept. These need not be very original or very creative. If such methods are known to work, then the risk of a new idea is reduced.
While standard approaches need to be laid out and acknowledged, there is benefit in seeking to go further. It is always possible to come back to the standard approach. It is at this stage that the deliberate creative processes of lateral thinking can be used. What may result is a specific idea that has immediate value. More often there is the ‘beginning’ of an idea which requires a great deal more work before it shows clear benefits.
‘Value sensitivity’ is crucial, as it is in all creative and design work. How do you know that you are moving towards an important value? How do you know which values you are giving up in order to get other values? A slight modification of an idea can result in a great increase in value.
CONCEPTS AND STRATEGY
There are times when a concept itself provides a business strategy. Or a strategy becomes a way of delivering a certain concept. More often, concepts are ingredients. Strategy is cooking the cake. Concepts are the ingredients that go into the cooking process. That is why it is useful to separate the ‘strategy process’ from the ‘concept development process’.
If a strategy is developed, then concepts are expected to fit that strategy. This is a valuable approach in itself. At the same time, this may limit the development of new concepts, since the strategy may be based on old concepts. Should a really new concept emerge directly (not as part of the strategy process), then the whole strategy may develop in a different direction.
Who should staff the Concept R&D department? The simple answer is people who are happy dealing with concepts. This is not quite the same as creativity.
Many creative people are uneasy with concepts. There is an element of analysis in clarifying and defining concepts so that they become tangible. At the same time, there is a need to go beyond just defining existing concepts. There is a need to create, design and develop new concepts. This needs creative skill, but it needs design skill even more. A certain amount of trial and error may be needed before the right people for the job are found.
So there should be a small core group that would then interact with other groups such as strategy, marketing, new product development, R&D, etc. It may even be possible for people from these other areas to be seconded to the Concept Department for a time in order to become familiar with concepts. The other alternative is to outsource this concept function and to have some outside body act as the department for the organisation.
CONCEPTS AND IDEAS
When does an idea become concept - and vice-versa? There is no sharp dividing line. Concepts are much broader and can be carried out in various ways. Wall decoration is a concept. Wallpaper is an idea. But there is also a concept residing in ‘wallpaper’. This is the concept of ‘prepared decoration which can then be applied as a whole to a wall’. There may then be other ways of preparing the decoration off-site and applying it in ready-made form. Philosophically it may be difficult to decide between a concept and an idea. In practice, the process is much easier. A concept is never usable directly. A concept is only usable when it is applied via some practical method.
The first step is to acknowledge the reality, value and importance of ‘concepts’. The next step is to examine where these come from at the moment. The final step is to do something about it. Concepts do not only apply to big changes in direction. There cannot be too many of these without causing confusion.
Being clear about the concepts currently in use helps develop concept thinking....’this is the concept’, ‘these are the values’, ‘these are ways of delivering the concept’. From such considerations there often arises a realisation that the concept can be delivered in other, and better, ways.
Concepts are key elements in thinking. They are not academic philosophical abstractions.