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SAL’s secret sauce – part 1


What’s ‘under the hood’ of SAL’s scouting service? We take a look, over 4 instalments, of what is it that SAL does that makes them special and how they do it.

Never one to steer away from a challenge, it was with great excitement that SAL’s team responded to a very new proposal from one of our familiar clients last year. Would we be open to letting them take a peek “under the hood” and teach their sceptic procurement team how we go about finding technologies and solutions? As defenders of the power of openness in innovation, we did not hesitate to say yes and started putting down in words what exactly is SAL’s “secret sauce”. With this post, we are beginning a new series in SAL’s blog where we open the doors and show you the inner workings of SAL.

Having a process in place and being able to describe it to an “outsider” is, as we quickly found out, very different things. We ended up breaking our process in four different steps (which naturally overlap between them).

1. Understanding the problem

2. Defining a search specification

3. Searching for new technologies

4. Filtering and facilitating

1. Understanding the Problem

Understanding and breaking down our client’s problems is the most critical step in any open innovation efforts, and one that gets often overlooked. When starting a new technology search, SAL’s strategy involves a delicate balance between learning as much as possible about the technical details of the system while still looking at the problem as an “outsider”.

The “outsider eye” is one of the several advantages that someone not personally involved with the problem brings to the table – it allows us to question well established assumptions and light new paths to solve the problem that would not have been considered otherwise. We complement our work in breaking down the problem with the “kick-off meeting” – SAL’s first contact with the client’s team, where we discuss the problem trying to build two things: i) a deep understanding of the technical system, it’s variables and its constraints and ii) an image of what the client is trying to achieve and what would be reasonable/applicable.

Successfully breaking down the problem is one of the most relevant steps towards finding success in Open Innovation. In order to do this, we employ several tools that help us look at the problem at hand through different perspectives, different scales and different levels of abstraction. We have an extensive toolbox, which we are constantly refining and curating. As an example, we frequently employ techniques, such as TRIZ, the CIA’s Phoenix Checklist and the always trustworthy brainstorming. On that score we have recently been working on some new and rather extreme brainstorming and creativity techniques with our partner Impact Innovation. You can see a sneak preview of these here.

TRIZ is the Russian acronym for the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, a technique first developed in 1946 by Dr Genrich Altshuller’s research team. It is a powerful problem-solving tool derived from rigorous analysis of the patterns of invention on the published literature. TRIZ philosophy defines that every technical problem can be abstracted onto its defining characteristics and, through that abstraction, equated with other problems that might seem very different at first but that are conceptually the same. According to TRIZ, there are a set number of standard solutions that repeatedly pop up through the history of technological development, in completely different industries and contexts. We use TRIZ extensively in this step to abstract whatever problem our client might be facing and, in that process, break it into its defining characteristics.

Another tool we frequently apply is the CIA Phoenix checklist. The phoenix checklist is a sequence of “context free” questions that encourage whoever uses it to look at the problem through very different lens and angles. It is not, necessarily, a technical/engineering tool, however, we find it useful as a means of forcing us to think of the problem in different perspectives. You can find the Phoenix Checklist here (http://creativitycentral.squarespace.com/creativity-central/2012/10/11/the-phoenix-checklist-innovation-by-the-cia.html).

Despite using different tools, all our efforts are glued together by frequent brainstorms, where we sit down, gather our ideas and thoughts and guide our team approach.

A useful way of understanding this process is to think of an “Innovation Landscape” – an abstract map of all the hypothetical potential approaches towards solving any given problem. One of the key skills of Open Innovation is opening up this landscape and bringing up new avenues for exploration.

When the team feels confident that we have broken down the problem and that we have populated the innovation landscape with a fair amount of potential areas to start exploring, we move on to the next step and start constructing a search specification. We will be diving onto that topic in our next instalment.


Prepared by Ivan Coelho