There’s some that argue the customer can’t tell us what to do, and most of us innovators agree. Ford put it clearly: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. It is also true that it’ll be harder to find breakthrough innovation if we only focus on the customer and that is why we have other inputs like trends, orthodoxies, etc., but…keeping the customer at the center allow us to make sure we are prioritizing things that are relevant for the customer and that can generate commercial value for the organization.
During innovation sessions and workshops it is very easy to lean towards what benefits our own interests, our business unit, the retailer’s , etc. We talk about where we want to take our organization, our product line or our brand. All of that is valid as long as in the end, it is addressed with connection to the insight, to the end customer. By human nature we are self-centered, in different degrees, we are taught humility which leads to empathy. Empathy leads to understanding. This is in part of why innovation is not easy, it is more than a business process, we even have to teach our teams humility for heaven’s sake!
A challenge innovators face is that while they may be able to be empathic to the customer, they must transmit this empathy to those that sit in venture boards and review bodies. When this is achieved, the problem we are trying to solve is understood and the feedback is more relevant. The good innovators though, are going to be able to connect and balance the relationship of this empathy with business sense. When this two come together, a goldmine has been found. Another critical skill of the good innovator is establishing this connection.
By its very nature innovation is defined as something that delivers value, ultimately to the customer. If we understand the customer with depth, empathy, in its context and without injecting our own beliefs we are in the path of creating true sustainable advantage. Yes! Consumer understanding is the essence of competitive advantage. No matter what competition does, if our pipeline is funded on this true understanding and we deliver against it, we will stay relevant and win in the marketplace. Innovators must be obsessed with the customer.
image credit: musicroom.com
Moises Norena is Global Director of Innovation at Whirlpool, where he leads a team on the infrastructure that enables innovation. Whirlpool is a company recognized for its commitment to making innovation an enterprise capability by engaging employees in the discipline.