“Go forth and Innovate” — whilst I have yet to hear those immortal words actually uttered by any senior executive (at least not without tongue-in-cheek) — it is the virtual call to arms that many Innovation execs receive nowadays.
The resulting rush to show action prior to thinking that action through is probably one of the greatest contributors to corporate malaise around the expectations for a fledgling innovation program.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in corporate innovation programs where, in a bid to emulate their own version of a P&G-style “Connect & Develop* program, Innovation execs rush in to embrace ideas from the outside without stopping to think about whether or not the audience they’re asking is actually capable of the answers they’re looking for…
For example — let’s look at what’s probably the most obvious place for a company to start: existing customers. Even better — let’s choose our long term customers with which we already have good relationships — surely that will lead to some synergistic big ideas that will result in big sales down the line…it sounds like a good idea, no? And it continues to sound like a good idea until you realize that, whilst prolific with ideas for your company, the vast majority of ideas you get from your customers seem to always end up being iterations on your existing product lines… new colors, new flavors, new add-ons — but primarily minor changes — why aren’t they delivering on those big ideas I was looking for?
The Answer: Because they lack one vital Innovation ingredient… Unhappiness.
In order to be able to innovate — in order to even want to innovate — you have to, be default, be in a motivated state to look at/consider new options and solutions. You have to be unhappy with the current status quo.
After all, your customers are already buying from you – you’ve already satisfied the “job they’re trying to get done” (to borrow a Clayton Christensen-ism) – so why would they even consider any radical alternatives?
And the bigger the ideas you’re looking for – the higher up the “unhappiness-scale” you’ve got to go up to stand a chance of finding it.
So let’s go up that unhappiness scale – next up are groups known as “lead users.” Lead users (not to be confused with Lead/Early adopters) are people who are only buying your product because it’s the closest darn thing to what they really wished you’d made.
They use and adapt and do all sorts of crazy things to your product in order to satisfy their real need. Get them to open up those real needs to you, and you unlock the potential to find the next generations of your current product lines as you uncover tangential markets, brand extensions, and new applications of existing/modified product sets that satisfy new niches and customer segments.
Want an example of how powerful this can be? I had one former client of mine go out to all his customer facing staff to ask for “all the crazy, wacky, and abusive things that our clients are using our products for, that we never envisioned them being used for”. After searching far and wide, they found a small company in New England that was using a product they made to waterproof new housing, to waterproof boats instead. Why? Because it was a quicker, easier, and simpler method than the traditional way they’d done it before. It took my client all of a few months to repackage the existing product to target the boating community and create an entirely new market for themselves that added an additional $7 Million in its debut year – not too bad, eh?
What if we want to go for the really big ideas? Well then we have to go to the most unhappy person of all — the people who aren’t buying your product at all because the product you make don’t even come close to what they are looking for. Listen to these people and you might just find the future of your company.
These last two groups represent the “fringe” of the populations available to you — the edges of where your company is, and where it could be. Engage those and bring them in to reinvent your core business, and you’ll find the way to ensure your company lasts the next 5 years.
In the meantime, keep in mind this mantra I give to my clients:
- Customers give you Iterations…
- Lead users give you Generations…
- Non-customers give you the Future…
As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments below!