How do you source ideas for innovation out of customers?

How do you source ideas for innovation out of customers?

Phil McKinney asks: are customers a source of ideas for innovation?

Two years ago The Economist published a report where it indicated that by 2020 customers will replace R&D as the main source of new ideas. Well, apart from customers, there are many sources where companies can get ideas for innovation; partners, competitors, non-competing companies and employees.

Some of the most innovative ideas can come from customers themselves. But, you must involve them.

You have to go beyond the Idea Suggestion Box

For the purpose of sourcing ideas from customers and employees, the most organizations do is setup an idea suggestion box. To understand why it sucks as an idea sourcing tool, ask any company if they get ideas from their customers and they will most likely answer with yes. But, ask them if they take the time to implement those ideas and the answer is probably no. The same goes for company employees, the answer is no.

If you’re a company that is committed to listening and applying ideas from customers, this is what you have to do:

Customer idea sourcing must be done in relevant settings; take customers to places and settings where they do things that you want to change. It must be focused on the actual decision situation; ask customers what they do, what they feel and think. Look out for postures and situations that may tell you about what they could be thinking but are not articulating it with words. It must also invite customers to be creative; ask them to imagine new scenarios, not evaluate the status quo.

After you’ve taken a couple of days to do so, you can go back to your office whiteboard and use IDEO’s Empathy Map to help you structure and synthesize your thinking around what customers are saying, doing, thinking and feeling:

IDEO Empathy Map

An outcome of doing this exercise should be a collection of themes around key challenges, as well as potential solutions, to what customers are trying to achieve. The main thing you have to understand is that you just don’t ask customers for ideas, you have to put them in specific situations to dig deeper and unearth what they might not be saying.

As I wrote this week, if you have the capability to prototype at the moment of doing contextual research, this is as good a moment to capture ideas from customers and integrate them into your product in real-time.

Bottom line: The best ideas you will get from customers come from observing them in their domain, while also involving them in the process. And, the faster you can prototype with them the better.

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  • Tim Callington

    Great post Jorge. I think one of the best sources of innovation is when you can connect all those groups together, or give them a platform where they can build on each other’s ideas.

    • Hi Tim,

      Right on! That’s an open innovation platform such as Spigit.

      What’s your experience in connecting all of those groups together? What are the obstacles to getting them to connect?



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  • Pavel Bogdashov

    Great post, Jorge – I agree with the points you have made.

    I like your point about involving customers in the process – in the real world of business we spend too much time trying to explain in our words the hypothetical benefit a possible solution might have… [customers often left OTT, thinking ‘forget it’]… But experiments in the customer’s domain you are referring to – getting them to experience a prototype (or demo, or pilot, or an MVP) in the comfort and safety of their world – this is an experience that is much more valuable to our customers and more insightful to us.

    I believe that when we carry out these experiments we need to find a way to measure what our customers Say and Do reliably and meaningfully. Then we can imagine what they Think and Feel. And with this level of customer understanding getting to the ‘Aha!’ moment will become so much easier. Sounds like a lot of work – but actually this is the effort well invested and it can pay back in ideas and improved customer relationships – because even if we fail in getting good ideas from the experiment, our customers can see we are trying damme hard.

    • Hi Pavel,

      In the real world of business there is a lot of “assuming”. Too much sitting around the conference table, not a lot wanting to connect with the boss: the customer.

      And as you said, you improve relationships when you go out and meet them where they are because it shows that you actually “care”.

      Thanks for the comment.