Pyramiding Search: A Technique to find ideas from different industries to implement in yours

 In Idea Generation, Problem Solving

Back in 2002, P&G was contemplating ideas to make its Pringles Potato Crisps more interesting and innovative. In the brainstorming session, someone shared an idea of printing pop culture images on Pringles.

The idea was great. However, to execute it P&G had to print every crisp right after it came out of frying. Not only this, they have to print quality images on thousands of crisps every minute. They had to spend a lot on R&D of edible dyes as well.

What do you think what P&G might have done? Conventional wisdom dictates an approach to contact an ink-jet printer company that helps P&G develop a workable process which P&G didn’t follow.

Do you know where P&G found a solution to its problem? In a small bakery ran by a university professor in Bologna, Italy. The professor had invented a method to print edible images on cakes. P&G replicated the solution and took the idea from concept to launch phase within few months which otherwise would have taken at least 2 years. In 2012, P&G sold its Pringles business to Kellogg in a $2.695 billion all-cash transaction.

What Led P&G to Look Outside its R&D Labs for Innovative Solutions?

Most mature companies set a target of 4% to 6% growth year. During 2000, this for P&G meant adding/building $2 to $3 billion business that year. For A.G. Lafley, P&G’s newly appointed CEO, it was clear that P&G’s traditional invent everything within walls of their R&D facilities are not going to help him sustain top line growth for P&G.

Lafley challenged his employees to reinvent their innovation model. He challenged his employees by giving them a goal to acquire half of the new innovation from outside the company. P&G estimated that for every R&D engineer/scientist inside there were 200 equally capable scientists/engineers outside. Thus for 7500 R&D people inside there were 1.5 million equally capable outside their research labs.

This led P&G to come up with their Connect and Develop innovation model. It wasn’t an innovation outsourcing model where P&G was searching for transferring innovation to a low-cost provider. Instead, it was an attempt to find and use ideas from analogous industries to solve P&G’s innovation issues.

As per a report by the researchers at the University of Bath on P&G’s Connect and Develop model, in 2004, P&G reported a 17% increase in volume, a 19% increase in sales.

Why Should You Look Beyond Your Research Domain?

Innovation is directly proportional to novelty. Crossing four walls of your R&D labs exposes your organization to a large and more diverse set of sources of innovations. Further, it helps your organization overcome Fixedness Bias at the individual level and local bias at the organizational level.

Fixedness Bias is most challenging aspect of innovation which blocks one’s abilities to use old tools in a new way and to see past what is working today. One stops challenging assumptions and believes that what was once true is still true. This leads to perpetual blindness and hampers one’s innovation potential.

Hence, leaving invent-everything-inside model and tapping into the knowledge of industries that are analogous to yours, help you find more novel ideas to solve your industry problems and in the generation of successful innovations.

The Antilock Braking System which is standard equipment in the cars these days was developed by searching analogous markets. The automobile industry found the similar problem in the aircraft industry and a solution as well.

Is there a way to find analogous markets where solutions to the problem of your industry exist? Well, yes, there are multiple ways. For example, you can use Forced Association or Pyramiding Search Technique to accomplish the mission.

We have explained how to use Forced Association to find analogous markets in an article here. We will be explaining how to use Pyramiding Searching in our brief time together. So let’s have a look:

What is Pyramid Searching Technique?

Pyramid Searching is a technique to cross all the domain-specific boundaries to find analogous domains/industry. It involves sequentially asking people, ‘‘Who in your organization or elsewhere do you think has more insight on this problem,” until you reach the top of a knowledge pyramid.

While other search techniques are restricted to a predefined population, pyramiding transcends domain specific boundaries. The first step of the process is to find the answer to a question: who else in another industry might have a strong need to find the solution to a problem similar to ours? To give you an example, if an automobile company wants to build a braking system that can bring a high-speed car to rest really quickly then finding how Formula One Racing Teams had done that would be a great start.

To find experts to interview, you can look for the top researcher who published a lot of research papers in the domain, or a journalist, You Tuber, or blogger that covered most of the industry issues.

It is a common phenomenon that people with serious interest in an area know who the top notch people of that area are.  These researchers/bloggers then can give you a reference to someone who is a world-class expert in that domain.

Here are few tips that will come handy while running a pyramid search:

  1. To increase chances of finding better leads, start your search outside. Don’t start with your own domain.
  2. Be great at communication. If as an interviewer you fail to make an interviewee connect with the problem of your domain, you will hamper your chances to find next lead.
  3. If after last 3-4 interviews you gained no knowledge, you might be running your search wrong. Go back to the whiteboard and start again.
  4. If you have been referred to the same lead multiple times by multiple previous leads, you might have reached the top of echelon. Your search ends here.

The image below provides a schematic illustration of a pyramiding search:

How a medical-imaging problem got solved using solution by military-spies?

Eric von Hippel in his paper Creating Breakthroughs at 3M shares a case study of a team of researchers working in the field of medical imaging. The team had an objective to find ways to develop better high-resolution images that could help detect an early-stage tumor.

The team used Pyramid Searching Technique to find the solution. First, they asked some radiologists, the target field, working on a most challenging medical-imaging problem. Some of these radiologists had already developed solutions way ahead of the products available in the market.

The team asked Radiologists for people in another field working on the next level problem related to imaging. The team got lead of few specialists working in the area of pattern recognition and specialists working on images that show fine details of a semiconductor chip.

The specialists in the field on pattern recognition proved to be valuable for the team. It further led them to military reconnaissance experts using pattern recognition in images to find answers to questions like “Is that a rock lying under that tree, or is it the tip of a ballistic missile?” These military experts had innovated ways to capture high-resolution images using pattern recognition software.

The image below provides a schematic illustration of how the team used pyramiding search:


Pyramid Search Technique is a great way to make sure that you don’t invest your resources in inventing something which has already been invented. The technique can help your team discover truly novel solutions by studying how top-notch people in analogous industries have tackled a problem similar to you.

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