Give the People What They Want

Give the people what they want

One of the reasons that innovation seems to miss its promise so often is that great many products and services are presented with great fanfare and expectations about how those products and services will delight customers.  Far too often, those expectations are wrong.  That’s not to say the product or service is inadequate, or that the need doesn’t exist.  There’s simply more to the story that innovators often overlook.

There are 50 ways to leave your lover, and perhaps almost as many ways to identify a need in the marketplace.  Here are five of the most common ways to identify and define a need for a new product or service:

  1. Have the R&D guys create the next iteration of your existing technology platform. If they liked the last one, they’ll love the new one.  I call this “inside-out” innovation.
  2. Ask customers what they want or need. You’ll get reasonable responses from people who genuinely want to help you.  These answers, for the most part, will indicate incremental products and services at best.  As Henry Ford said, if I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.
  3. Conduct market research with your existing customers. This is the natural starting point for most companies, since they’ve grown to trust statistically significant market research data.  The problem with this approach is that it is exceptionally good at telling you what existing customers think about existing products, and practically useless otherwise.
  4. Conduct a trend spotting workshop and synthesize the trends into scenarios. While this approach won’t result in specific product needs, it will identify emerging markets, emerging segments and emerging threats to your business.  The problem with this approach is that trends are usually assessed over a long period of time, and most of us want to create the next big thing tomorrow.  The future is too far away to be of any use today.
  5. Use tools like the Strategy Canvas from Blue Ocean Strategy. This is a useful and powerful tool that practically no one understands, because it forces a user to think about their existing industry and competitive position in entirely new ways.  If you can get a team to do this, you can spot many opportunities.  Otherwise, you’ll simply reconfirm the existing competitive strategy.

The problem with these, and with many other innovation approaches, is that we are too focused on the parameters and attributes and specifications of the outcome, rather than the shape, size and emotion of the needs and gaps.  Spotting needs is an empathetic exercise, one that is qualitative and not quantitative.  We need to understand the depth of the need, the reason for the work-around, the failures and frustrations the gaps create.  Instead, we are trained to be excited about the specific parameters (feeds and speeds) of the shiny new object that we can create.

Giving people what they want means solving a gap, a barrier, a challenge or a need that they may not be able to articulate, and that they may not think can be solved.  The famous example is the microwave oven.  No one ever demanded a microwave oven, but they certainly would have enjoyed and appreciated the value of faster food preparation.  Far too often we innovators are too focused on the here and now, on the practical, on what can be accurately measured and statistically proven, rather than simply understanding a customer’s frustration, the overlooked market segment.  We trust our own instincts about what customers want and need rather than interact with them in ways that illuminate the opportunities for us.

Perhaps the only person who seemed to do this well was Steve Jobs.  He had some kind of a mystical mind connection to the population, but ultimately his solutions were common – better design, better usability, better coordination and compatibility.  While the rest of the tech world focused on feeds and speeds, Apple focused on accessibility, and that made all the difference.

If you want to innovate, create truly new and valuable products and services, you will have to leave your office.  You will have to go out and mingle with the populace, the great unwashed, and learn not just what they think they want, but what the biggest barriers, challenges, problems and gaps to achieving whatever it is they want to achieve that you can solve.  For Apple, it started by helping people manage their music more effectively.  You need observational skills, empathy and interpretive skills that often aren’t valued in the traditional business setting.  The more disruption you seek, the further from your comfort zone you’ll need to travel.  The more disruption you seek, the more you’ll need to talk to people who aren’t your customer today and who have little stake in the existing systems and infrastructure.

The reason so many “innovations” seem so hum-drum or fail to miss the mark is that they are only logical extensions to existing solutions that seem obvious by the time they reach the market, or completely miss the important, relevant needs that people actually need to solve.  Ideas are a dime a dozen, but ideas that are focused on the right insights, the right needs and opportunities, are immediately important and relevant.  Good work up front to spot needs and trends will simplify idea generation and make it more effective.  Poor or non-existing understanding of needs, barriers and challenges means idea generation will fail to achieve its goals regardless of the facilitator, regardless of the participants, regardless of the tools.

Good innovation is doing your homework, which is really doing your fieldwork.  Sure, give the people what they want, but more importantly, help them achieve the outcomes they desire.

image credit: mixergy

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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