If you look deeply at hundreds of examples of business innovation, an interesting pattern begins to emerge. Specifically, what we find is that an innovative idea came not from some inherent individual brilliance but from looking at the world from a fresh perspective; an alternate way of seeing things.
Innovators don’t pull ideas out of the air, rather they obsess about a particular challenge, ask questions and dig deep to discover insights. And one way innovators come to their insight is by understanding the unarticulated needs of people.
This is not about conducting traditional market research, neither is it about going out and directly asking customers what they want. These methods rarely yield the most useful customer insights.
If you truly want to understand customers’ wants and needs, you need to remove the distance between you and them. You need to immerse yourself in their environment and make their needs, frustrations, and desires your own. That means getting out of the office and into the field to become the customer, to feel the customer experience, to identify and understand the customer’s problems, and then look for ways to solve it.
Gaining insights by becoming the customer is the most valuable innovation technique available, but it is not normal. Most businesses believe that an insight results from asking customers what they want.
Insight is the keystone of innovation
A recent article on INSEAD puts fort the question of whether innovation teams need, or don’t, customer insight:
True or False: Great #innovation teams don’t need customer insights. @ElisabetLagerst https://t.co/2XBJYew3uz pic.twitter.com/2VypI8fzqN
— INSEAD Knowledge (@INSEADKnowledge) February 24, 2016
There are challenging views on this topic, but I’ll clarify it for you: Insights first, ideas second.
Remember, a game-changing idea comes from looking at the world from a fresh perspective. In this case putting yourself in the customer’s shoes gives you that fresh perspective; an insight.
As stated above, you need to listen to customers but don’t believe them. You see, listening isn’t just about asking them questions and receiving an answer, it’s about observing them in the context of when and how they use your product or service.
Another way to frame it is you must design with the customer in mind, not what the customer has in mind.
The job of product management is to design *with* the customer in mind, not what the customer had in mind. — @levie
— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) February 24, 2016
Innovation = reducing errors + increasing insights
Now, you shouldn’t ignore customer ideas. But understand that sourcing ideas from customers is a great way to optimize and evolve an exiting product or service, but not to create the future.
Remember, to innovate you have to optimize the present while also discovering what’s next. And there’s a difference between the insights that optimize the present and the ones that help build the future.
Which takes me to this: customer discovery never stops.
One mistake innovation leaders make is they assume they already know their customers, so they stop communicating with them. The truth is you never fully understand your customers, you need to obsess about them.
This is the innovation dilemma most organization face, to manage the present while also creating the future: exploitation vs discovery.
Most organizations are good at efficiency, aka “reducing errors”, but not so good at discovering the future. Indeed, by only focusing on reducing errors organizations hinder discovering the new. To innovate, this is the type of inertia that organizations need to be overcome.
The bottom line is you need to understand this: people can tell you what they want right now, but not what they want in the future.
So if your innovation team has customer ideas on how to optimize the present; that is not an insight that will help build the future.