OPINION21 August 2013

Silicon swing

How California’s tech start-ups use insight to innovate, and how you can copy them. By Sense Worldwide’s Brian Millar.


Quite the opposite. Big firms are idea machines. But they also contain an idea-killing machine. It’s called the stage-gate process – scoping, building a business case, development, testing and validation. As a predictor of success it’s about as useful as throwing somebody in the river to see if they can swim. Your process should force innovations to evolve, rather than letting them drown.

Take a close look at Silicon Valley. It’s rare to find a company there that was a first-time success. Most radically changed direction at least once.

For example: Did you know that Twitter emerged from a podcast subscription service called Odeo, or that Flickr evolved out of something called Game Neverending?

They call it “pivoting”, and the process works like this: at an agreed interval, technologists, insight specialists and marketers come together to match technologies and needs. If a technology matches a need that it’s not currently serving, then you have an opportunity to pivot.

The pivot process is a hungry beast, though. It’s desperate for insight into consumer needs. You must approach every pivot session with a big bag of needs. Quantity is more important than quality, or careful validation.

When it comes to figuring out needs, the message is “Play, don’t test”. Think of Google Glass – a perfect example of a technology in search of a killer app. Google created a competition to suggest uses for the product. The best 8,000 answers to the #ifihadglass hashtag were sent a pair to play with.

Nobody is asking these people to do satisfaction surveys. They’re asking them to go crazy with a technology and to see what happens. Some of the most profitable products in the world were consumer hacks – text messaging, for example.

So go forth and pivot.

Brian Millar is director of strategy, Sense Worldwide


This article was first published in Impact, the new quarterly magazine from the Market Research Society. Follow the link to read the digital version of Impact.


  • A special report on customer experience
  • Profiles of the Tate, SABMiller and Auto Trader, showing how they use data and insight to shape strategy and decision-making
  • How the UK government’s Nudge Unit is changing policy development
  • How hackathons can help data and analytics companies innovate