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Innovation and Product Development

Zigs & Zags – The Opposite of a Great Idea Can Also be a Great Idea

Photo looking down at legs standing on asphalt with yellow directional arrows pointing in different directions.

I get a lot of enjoyment from the creative and innovative side of the work I do. Helping clients or my teams break out of the day-to-day and explore the unexpected. I’ve discussed innovation myths before and how to use lateral thinking to expand your pool of ideas in unexpected ways. One of my favorite aspects is seeing how random great ideas can be! Even when you land on a great idea, don’t stop, because the opposite of that can also be a great idea.

You may have heard the phrase, “When everyone zigs, you should zag.” It is unclear where this quote originated, and many have tried to claim it as their own. Several books have been written on the concept, and many more refer to it when discussing differentiation and disruption within marketing and product development.

When everyone zigs, you should zag. – Unknown

Where Great Ideas Come From

What makes a great idea? It’s common that people view novel and innovative, first-to-market groups as having great ideas. No doubt that is true. But what about derivative ideas or groups that directly compete by differentiating based on price or quality? Do they have great ideas? Maybe sometimes, but I’d argue that they have great execution more than anything. I think great ideas come from unconventional thinking. That can be through a new idea or within areas that improve upon existing ideas.

Astro Teller holds the title of “Captain of Moonshots” at Google X. He has said, “It’s often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better.” He’s saying that not only are moonshots more intriguing than incremental change, but it can also be easier to pull them off. Why? Because increasing by 10% means starting from where you are and being within reach of every other competitor trying to do the same thing. Ten times better means rethinking and differentiating significantly. You might have to suspend reality, but you also create something that rallies the troops and excites the stakeholders.

That brings us back to concepts of lateral thinking. When I speak to groups about innovation, I love to use random entry exercises. I have a few ready-made problem statements but also ask the attendees to come with some of their own. I then have them draw a random word out of a hat and ask them to come up with as many ways to solve the problem that relates to their random word as they can in five minutes. When I did this with a group of 25 for the first time, I was nervous because there is no way to plan for randomness – I had to trust the process. Every single time I’ve run the exercise, it just works! There are always some who struggle at first and can’t seem to find a connection, but I’m there to help them if they feel stuck. Not once have I had a group who wasn’t able to produce an intriguing idea within five to ten minutes based on a random word.

Great ideas abound! You just have to allow yourself to see them.

It’s often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better. – Astro Teller

The Folly of Following Trends

Trends are, by definition, people following a current style or popular approach. The trend itself can be a great idea. But great ideas can be dampened when everyone does it, becoming short-lived because it loses its appeal when it no longer feels new and unique.

The book, Zero to One by Peter Thiel, covers advice for startups and those entrepreneurial-minded folks who want to build the future. In the book, Thiel gives an often-unpopular suggestion to say that avoiding competition is the better path. He describes competition as detrimental and unproductive. The analogy of the “red ocean” of a saturated market drives home his point. His advice is to create something uniquely valuable in an area where you can dominate and defend your market.

Companies can also get stuck in a rut following their own trends. Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma is a must-read book that covers exactly how large organizations prevent themselves from innovating. In The Innovator’s Solution, he addresses how groups can try to get around their own hurdles.

Today’s “best practices” lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried. – Peter Thiel

The Art of Zigging When Others Zag

How can we foster this mindset to generate great ideas? History has shown us repeatedly that we humans tend to flock together and follow trends. We’ll all buy up the currently hot item until it is ruined because everyone has it and it is no longer special.

From what I’ve experienced and read about, those who seem to fare the best are those who think longer term – the proverbial chess players versus checkers. The leaders who can see the common pattern of currently hot trends and see it play out to its inevitable end – which is often a race to the bottom with reduced quality and profits.

Even after recognizing the pattern, it can still be a tough choice to either go with the trend (gaining predictable short-term revenue) or to choose a different path (with risk and uncertainty). The choice can come down to who your audience really is and where your North Star points.

The Amazon Kindle was released in 2007. In 2012, Jeff Bezos was interviewed and asked if the iPad would be a “Kindle killer.” Bezos responded with, “When people come to me and say: ‘You’ve got to have full-motion video and color on the Kindle.” I say: ‘Why? You think Hemingway is going to pop more in color?’… You don’t understand my audience.” In a report from 2020, the Kindle was 84% of the e-reader market share.

To be fair, the e-reader market has been in slow decline, where some correlate the rise of audiobooks to be a factor.

The number one thing people are doing on their iPads right now is playing a game. – Jeff Bezos

Real-World Global Examples – Gettin’ Ziggy with It

I want to share some real examples of companies who have zigged and zagged to success. They included innovators who went against the grain, rejected the status quo, and ignored the critics. In doing so, they achieved great ideas with remarkable results.

Over the years the video game market has changed dramatically. But if you step back and take a holistic view, you’ll see a lot of similar trends across popular consoles and their games. Nintendo continues to differentiate itself as more family-friendly with a focus on gameplay and portability. This has allowed them to retain a successful niche within a competitive market.

Tesla set out in 2004 to become the first all-electric automobile manufacturer. Many said it couldn’t be done, but after its successful launch of the Roadster in 2008, Tesla became a household name. Now several U.S. states have near-future plans to enforce electric vehicles as the standard.

A Real-World Personal Example – Zagging to Success

A successful “zag” with a great idea doesn’t need to be risky.

Atlas Van Lines is in the moving and relocation industry. I worked on many projects with them in my early career (2003-2013). We did amazing work together.

At that time, their industry was driven by government regulations and tariffs. The industry was witnessing others moving to the web and digital experiences, while moving companies were lagging in their digital transformations. This was largely due to mandatory in-person surveys before a moving quote could be legally provided.

Atlas, along with my agency’s team, set out to find ways to provide instant online quotes, which the rest of the industry said could not be done. With a high-level North Star goal rallying the troops, we did just that. We not only solved the regulatory concerns around doing so, but we simultaneously built a system that was conducive to their nationwide network of independently owned agencies – all of whom wanted to control the pricing that Atlas HQ was showing online.

By the time I left the account in 2013, Atlas had several years of being the only van line doing online estimates well, and their competitors were working hard and fast to catch up.


Black and white. Sweet and salty. Opposites don’t have to be “good” and “bad”, in fact both ends of the spectrum can be amazing in their own right! The interesting thing is that there are many problems out there being solved by one solution, and in almost all cases, there is another way to attack the same problem. Choosing to be different may be the competitive advantage you need. Just because one great idea is successful, doesn’t mean that the opposite can’t also be a great idea.


If you are looking for a partner to commit to your industry “zag”, reach out to your Perficient account manager or use our contact form to begin a conversation.

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Brandon Luhring

Brandon is a consumer experience engagement manager at Perficient. His career has included running digital and marketing projects both in-house and as a consultant. He enjoys topics around creativity, innovation, design, technology, and leadership.

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