Monday, September 20, 2010

Rituals as an innovation lens

Far too often, we in the innovation space are interested in creating a really interesting new product, rather than thinking about the product in the context of its use or experience.  It was during a car trip with some new friends at Pure Insight when we were talking about daily rituals that I realized what a powerful "lens" rituals could be for focusing on new innovation opportunities.

We happened to be talking about shaving - in this case, the drudgery of waking up every day to scrape the bristles from our faces (our correspondents happened to be men.  I'll assume women think the same way about shaving their legs, etc).  While we complained about the task, the discomfort, the risk of cuts and so forth, we also came to the realization that each of us has a specific ritual about the way they approach shaving, and for the most part that ritual is the same no matter where they shave, or when they shave.  The same steps, the same thinking applies, and to break that ritual seems almost like breaking a sacred vow.

Now, many of us see the ads on TV for new razors.  The recent "innovations" in men's razors have been to add three, no four, no five! blades to the razor for an ever closer shave.  You'll notice that regardless of the number of blades in the razor, the ritual hasn't changed.  Whether it's three or four or five blades, we are still scraping our chins in the same way as we have for years, and our own learned, invented or inherited rituals around shaving don't change.

I suspect that the last two major changes to shaving rituals happened with the advent of packaged foams and creams for shaving and the electric razor.  Before that time you actually mixed up your own cream.  I can remember on my father's countertop a "shaving" mug, but you certainly don't see that anymore.  The electric razor changes how one shaves, to a certain extent, but more importantly WHERE one shaves.  If private detective shows are any indication, every self-respecting PI uses his electric razor behind the wheel.

These two innovations changed the rituals of shaving.  In the case of packaged creams and foams, there was less preparation and fewer tools necessary.  In the case of the electric razor, there was more freedom to decide where to shave and when to shave.  Yet, for the most part, many of us follow the same rituals every day.

This is important because true innovation will probably require a significant change to a standing ritual.  Whether that ritual is encapsulated in how we shave, or how we interact with a sales clerk, or how we sit down to eat a meal, we are a formulaic and ritualistic people.  Innovation forces changes to established rituals, and those changes are more difficult to digest and more disruptive than merely changing a tool.  Imagine for example eliminating the need to shave all together and how that would change your getting up and your preparation for the day.  While we may grumble about the task, it is one that requires patience, thinking and contemplation, one of the few times of the day where we are really deeply focused on one task.  If an innovation came along that eliminated the need to shave, we humans would almost require some new task or ritual to take its place.

Rituals are important for another reason as well.  They are developed behavior and often learned or taught, so they can be studied through ethnography.  We need to understand the entire ritual of an experience, whether that is shaving, or car repair, or eating a meal, to truly understand the problem solved or opportunity addressed.  Improving or radically changing one small step of the ritual, or one tool of the ritual, may not impact the overall ritual at all.

Rituals are an important and undervalued tool for innovators to study, understand and deconstruct.  They form a significant portion of what we do, and why we do what we do, and we ignore them at our own peril.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:59 AM


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