Are You Innovating for the Past or the Future?

Are You Innovating for the Past or the Future?I had the opportunity to meet and chat with local ethnographic researcher Cynthia DuVal about the role of ethnographic research in the innovation process, and she shared an insight that I thought I would share with the rest of you.

She mentioned that it is important for a good ethnographer or researcher to consider the timeline of the development process when extracting insights. Why is this important?

Well, if you’ve got a 12-18 month product or service development process to go from insight to in-market, then you should be looking not to identify the insights that are most relevant today, BUT the insights that will be most relevant 12-18 months from now. If you can go from insight to in-market faster than that, that’s fantastic, but the point still holds.

If your research team takes all of the data they’ve gathered and extracts insights for today, then you are innovating for the past, and if they develop insights too far along the time continuum then you are innovating for the future. You can’t really innovate for the past (your offering won’t be innovative and will be beaten easily by competitors). If you innovate for the future, then adoption will be slow until customers become ready. The trick is to task your insights team to provide guidance for the future present.

Innovating for Future Present

The ideal of course is to design a product based on customer insights appropriate to the time of the product launch to maximize the useful life of the customer insights.

The product or service are an expression of the customer insights, and it is the useful life of the insights that we are concerned with, not the useful life of the product or service (a post-purchase concept). When the insights reach their sell by date, sales will begin to tail off, and you better have another product or service ready to replace this one (based on fresh insights).

Now, extracting accurate customer insights for the present is difficult enough. Doing it for the future present is even harder. But, if your team starts out with that as its charter, they will likely rise to the challenge, for the most part.

FlexibilityBecause the team will likely only get the insights mostly right, it is important that your go-to-market processes include a great deal of modularity and flexibility. In the same way that product development processes have to design for certain components that are ‘likely’ to be available, but also have a backup design available that substitutes already released components–should the cutting edge components not be ready in time.

To innovate for the future present, you must maintain the flexibility to tweak branding and messaging (and even the product or service itself) should some of the forecasted customer insights prove to be inaccurate and require updates. It is also a good idea to evaluate, as you go, whether or not a fast follower version (e.g. iPhone OS v3.1) of the product, service, and/or branding or messaging will need to be prepared to address last minute customer insight discoveries that can’t be incorporated into the product or service or branding/messaging at launch.

So, will your team have the flexibility necessary to innovate for the future present, or will you find your team innovating for the past or the future?


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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is the creator of the Nine Innovation Roles Group Diagnostic Tool and author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.

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2 Responses to Are You Innovating for the Past or the Future?

  1. Pingback: Articles of Interest 6/1/2012 « National Creativity Network

  2. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | Potential Apple Innovation at Your Fingertips

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