Thought processes

Consultants charge thousands of pounds to tell you new ways of thinking about your business. Here are some inspiring ways to help you revolutionise your organisation’s performance

In ancient Greece, if you wanted to know the future you asked the oracle at Delphi.

The technique is quite specialised. You would only use it when you wanted to call on the ideas of a group of experts (who are probably geographically separated) to produce a forecast. It has been used to make predictions ranging from future trends in logistics management to expected tourism levels in Singapore.

The technique for this kind of forecasting is a little long-winded, but effective. You need to construct a questionnaire based around the scenario you want forecast. This questionnaire is then mailed (or e-mailed) to each of your experts.

This non-interactive forecasting technique generates creative input from a disparate group of people. Questionnaires are mailed to each member of the group, their responses combined and refined, and then returned to them. This process continues until consensus is reached.

When the results are returned they must be analysed and summarised. These summaries are then returned to the experts, who are asked to revise their responses where necessary. If any response varies widely from those of the rest of the group, the expert is asked to justify their difference of opinion.

The revised responses, and any justifications, are then summarised and circulated again. This process of summarising and revising continues until the group reaches a consensus.

This technique arguably generates a lower level of creativity than some, but it has a number of advantages to offset this:

• It can bring together the ideas of experts who are geographically separate,

• Everyone has an equal input

• Ideas remain linked to the person who generated them, which can be useful when experts are being used

• Ideas are not influenced by pressure from the rest of the group

There are disadvantages to the Delphi technique which you need to take into account before you use it:

• The quality of the questionnaires and the input of the analyst are hugely important in the success of the process

• It is time-consuming, even if you use e-mail to communicate with your group of experts. Summarising and refining the responses takes time

• It lacks the spontaneity of many other creative techniques

Suppose you want your group of experts to predict the most important trends over the next 10 years in the fast food industry. A typical set of questions could be:

• What are the greatest threats facing the fast food industry over the next 10 years?

• What are the greatest opportunities?

• What will fast food customers be looking for in terms of service?

• What will customers want in terms of product range?

• How do you see the size of the fast food market changing in the next 10 years?

Take the first question as an example. You might find that you get a list of 20 threats. In that case, try to summarise them into broad categories – too much competition, increasing costs, lack of suitable locations – and return this summary to your experts for them to agree or revise. Perhaps just one of your experts came out of left field and suggested that a huge increase in vegetarianism would threaten the conventional fast food market. In that case ask them to justify this prediction and circulate their evidence.

Go through this process with the whole questionnaire. After a couple more trips back and forth, you should arrive at a summarised response to your questionnaire which all your experts are happy with.

The FCB grid

The FCB grid is the brainchild of Richard Vaughn of the Foote, Cone and Belding advertising corporation. He devised it to help identify the market position of products and services, and to spot any gaps in the market. If you want to analyse your position relative to that of your competitors, or to look for market gaps, or – like Richard Vaughn – formulate a marketing strategy, try drawing an FCB grid.

The FCB grid is a simple matrix, which helps you identify and position new products and services by creating a visual representation of their place in the market.

Start by drawing a four-cell matrix. On one axis mark high involvement and low involvement, and on the other mark think and feel. High involvement represents costly products and services such as holidays, cars and computers. Low involvement represents inexpensive products and services such as dry cleaning, groceries or stationery.

Think represents products and services with which customers are not emotionally involved but choose on the basis of verbal, numerical, analytical, and cognitive criteria. These are such things as computer software, cameras and dishwashers.

Feel represents products or services that have an emotional appeal such as beauty products, clothes and fiction books.

You can now place any product in the correct quadrant of the matrix. For example, you would put breakfast cereal in the bottom left quadrant – low involvement/ think. A mortgage goes in the top left section. A designer wedding dress belongs in the top right, and everyday make-up goes in the bottom right.

To make the FCB grid useful, however, you also need to place products in the right part of the quadrant. So a life assurance policy would be part way up the high-involvement square, but not as high up as a house or a luxury boat. On the other hand, it would be well over to the left of the think section, because the customer selects it on an almost entirely functional rather than emotional criteria.

A sports car is also a high-involvement product but is probably selected more on the basis of feeling than thinking. Concrete data about performance is important, so it should be close to the think side, but it is generally the image of the car that sells it so it goes in the top right cell.

You can place your own products in their rightful positions in the matrix, and also put competitors’ products in place. This way, you can see how a group of products is spread out around the matrix.

You might find that your product falls in the middle of a cluster of competitors’ products, or that it is located somewhere very different. Or you might establish that your own product or service range is grouped closely together, and you are missing opportunities to diversify.

The grid is a valuable way to generate ideas. You might notice that you have products everywhere except in the bottom right quadrant. This should spur you to look at developing low-involvement/feel products.

You can, of course, put anything else you want to on your axes. You might have a range of fridges with varying capacity, and different sized ice compartments. This makes it easy to see at a glance that what you do not have is a low-capacity fridge with a large ice compartment. Perhaps there is a market for this with people who buy a lot of frozen foods.

One of the best advertisements for the FCB grid is Apple Computers. Before launching, Apple drew up a grid of the computer market. All the main players were selling computers in the high-involvement/think quadrant. Going into the same type of market as these huge organisations, such as IBM, would have been lunacy.

So Apple decided to position itself diametrically opposite, in the low-involvement/ feel sector. It made a computer for ordinary people and called it a personal computer – a much more feely name than, for instance, a minicomputer.

The company adopted a marketing strategy which emphasised that its computers were part of a whole new concept, designed for non-experts and really user-friendly. This was the strategy that made it so successful competing against the industry giants.

The Lotus Blossom technique

This is a popular method of generating ideas in a group because it flows fast from one theme to another. It is also useful to use on your own, and is helpful at the start of a process to generate ideas.

It is also valuable in finding new applications for existing products or technologies. This is something the Japanese are very good at and the technique was developed in Japan by Yasuo Matsumura, president of Clover Management Research, and is sometimes known as the MY method after his initials.

Lotus blossoms radiate out from the centre. In this technique, ideas radiate out from the centre following the same pattern. These ideas, in turn, become the centre of a new lotus blossom.

This technique takes a central theme and finds ideas for it. Each idea then becomes a central theme with more ideas radiating out from it, and so on.

Start by writing your central theme or issue in the centre of the MY lotus blossom. In each of the eight squares around the central square, write a related idea. If you are working in a group you can brainstorm these eight ideas. Now transfer the ideas to the central squares in the outer ring of boxes, and surround each one with another eight ideas. You can repeat the process with any of these ideas at the centre of a lotus flower. You will find, especially if you radiate out more than twice, that your ideas begin to dry up. Even two iterations will generate 64 ideas. If you used every one of these as the centre of a new lotus flower you would give yourself scope for a further 512 ideas, so be realistic. After the basic two iterations create new boxes for only the most promising ideas, and aim simply to fill in as many squares as you can.

Instead of writing eight ideas around the central box, you might prefer to list eight attributes of a product or problem. If you are looking for new ideas for designing telephones, say, you might list receiver, handset, buttons, ringer, memory, special features, casing and sound quality. You can then brainstorm ideas around each one.

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