A Practical Guide to Using Ideas from Other Industries to Improve Yours

Or, why Netflix should consider opening its own movie theatres.

The world is teeming with ideas. Being aware of what’s out there is critical to success. But how do you actually use insights from other businesses and industries to evolve your own ideas?

We use a handy, dandy mental map.

Step 1: Build a mental map of your business.

Every idea — product, feature, service, process — can be broken down into elements that connect to one another. The particular combination creates a mental map.

For instance, here’s a simple map for Netflix’s distribution system:

This map may not have cardinal directions, but there’s buried treasure here.

Netflix licenses content by region. It gets branded content from its content providers and its Netflix Original content from its own studios. The content comes in the form of movies or TV shows.

So to capture new opportunities, you just change the map:

  • Add new elements.
  • Remove elements or connections.
  • Add new connections.

That’s it. All progress involves one or more of the above.

But wait…which map is the right one?

An “element” or “connection” has no strict definition. How far should you break down a concept? How do you represent the connections?

You cheat. You can capture the same idea with lots of different maps.

Here’s another take at Netflix’s distribution system:

Each household has a subscription, which has profiles, each of which has its own DVD queue and streaming list. These are populated by content from the content providers and Netflix’s studios. Each profile also holds title suggestions, based on ratings made on that profile.

Same concept, and yet a different layout of elements and connections reveals different insights. And that’s a powerful thing.

Build out all possible maps for your idea. The more maps you build, the easier it will be to apply insights. More on that in a bit.

Step 2: Build mental maps for other people’s ideas.

You encounter a lot of other people’s ideas all day long, in the form of the products, services, and processes you face. Each of these can be broken down into its own maps.

Look for patterns in the use of elements and in their connections. Extract insights.

Let’s try it. What do Netflix, Costco, and Seamless have in common?

They’re all distributors.

But Netflix and Costco have something else in common: they also became content producers (via Netflix Originals and the Kirkland brand).

Since they already have distribution systems, the content they produce has wide reach quickly. It also doesn’t have the price markup of a traditional supplier. The insight: with a distribution system already in place, producing content can sometimes create net savings.

Step 3: Great artists steal.

Now that you’re breaking down, assessing, and neatly placing all the ideas you come across, how do you actually make use of them?

This part is more of an art than a science. Which is what makes innovation so elusive — and exciting.

Pick some maps related to yours. Maybe they share some of the elements or connections. Pick a few maps that connect the same elements in wildly different ways. Pick a few that use the same connections for wildly different elements. Pick a few random ones.

Put your map and those maps side by side. Stare.

  • Which elements can you add from those maps to yours?
  • Which connections can you take advantage of?

Let’s get back to Netflix, Costco, and Seamless. What would Seamless look like as a content producer?

Here’s a new idea: Seamless could produce its own food to deliver. Would that work?

Possibly. Munchery, for instance, delivers food solely from its own chef kitchens. It’s doing pretty well, but it’s missing the local restaurants element.

This is a potential opportunity for Seamless to get the best of both worlds — distribute food from its suppliers and from its own kitchens. Does this save costs? Seamless would need to calculate that. But simple mapping from entirely different industries has generated something new.

Let’s take another example, from Netflix’s perspective. Costco has a store element. What would Netflix look like with stores?

Netflix is attributed with the demise of the video store. Does it make sense for Netflix to go into video stores? Probably not.

It’s not a completely unprecedented idea. Amazon, attributed to the downfall of Borders and Barnes & Noble, recently opened its first physical book store. Why? To optimise for browsing — a customer need difficult to fulfill virtually.

(By the way, how did I come to realise this example? By constantly mapping and noting patterns. This is one of the only maps where a business that succeeded because it was online-first went back to the physical.)

But Netflix stocks films and shows, which, unlike books, cannot be consumed without a device and are usually experienced in one session. Many users would agree that Netflix’s online browsing experience, complete with personalised recommendations, is as good as or superior to a video store experience.

So is that it? Not a good idea? Hold on.

Here’s where the breakdown of the elements matter. Stores are a type of physical location, so we could equally say that Costco has physical locations. What would Netflix look like with physical locations?

Well, we’ve already ruled out stores. What other physical locations could Netflix have? Let’s look at a map of how a typical film moves through the industry.

Some light Internet research reveals:

Netflix delivers 3 of the 4 elements above itself with the Originals studios. The missing component: theatrical release. And actually, theatres are physical locations.

What if Netflix opened its own theatres?

Blasphemy or brilliance?

Like Amazon’s book store, Netflix’s theatres would have to meet a customer need that its online presence couldn’t. Why do people go to the movies, other than earlier release of content? They might go for the quality big screen, or to accommodate large groups, or for the total experience. These would be questions for Netflix’s product team to explore.

But Netflix has another element in its map that would set its theatres apart — the subscription model. How would this impact theatre attendance, prices, and offers?

For instance, Netflix could offer several free visits to the theatre per month for subscribers (still making money off concessions). Perhaps they offer another package that includes heavily discounted theatre tickets. Netflix also has great data on what users in a particular area like to watch — perhaps its theatres show movies based on the tastes of the communities they’re in.

Think like an innovator.

A few small tweaks and comparisons, and you’ve got a slew of interesting opportunities to explore. Many of the changes won’t work, but a few will lead to realisations your competition hasn’t made yet.

Mental maps are a simple, systematic way of evolving your ideas by applying insights from other places. Once you start mapping everything, generating and evaluating ideas becomes easy.

So go on then, find that buried treasure.

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