There’s a mistaken definition floating around the internet about innovation. Far too many people believe innovation is a completely new product or service – a shiny new object. What that definition fails to recognize is that for innovation to be valuable, the new product, service or business model needs to be something that consumers value. Creating a shiny new object that no one wants or needs is doubly wasteful in a time of limited resources and limited attention spans.
Many organizations fail to understand this principle. Many organizations are comfortable, self-absorbed and certain of their understanding of their industries and markets. Pride in the internal knowledge and technical capability leads many firms to developing new iterations of the same product or service, or to create completely new technologies with little insight into customers’ wants and needs. I’ll call this “technology push” innovation – pushing out new technologies based on internal capabilities without deep insights into customer needs.
At this point in the discussion you’ll toss out the exception that proves the rule. “Steve Jobs never asked his customers what they wanted”. Great. If you have a Steve Jobs clone employed in your company, and you are willing to delegate innovation strategy to him or her, stop reading now. I’ll wait for you to check. Still here? OK. 99% of firms surveyed don’t have clairvoyant insight into what customers want and need. 95% of the same firms don’t bother to attempt to discover what customers need, because it may conflict with internal beliefs, require changes to existing products or the creation of completely new products, cost money and require skills and insights that aren’t resident. No, it’s far easier and far simpler to continue to push out products that are based on internal competencies, regardless of customer need. Or worse, to simply continue to compound existing products or services with new technology.
My favorite in that regard is Microsoft Word. While it once had all the features I needed and easily accessible, today I must relearn Word after each new release, rediscovering where the simple commands I use regularly have been hidden while other features and capabilities I don’t need or want are prominently displayed. Microsoft’s Word bloat contrasts with Google Documents approach, which is to provide a basic word processor with only the bare minimum of tools and features. No wonder many people are migrating to Google Docs.
Shifting strategies and product development from proven internal capabilities and technologies (technology push) to discovering customer needs and responding to those needs is difficult but critical to success. A fair moderation of the two extremes is probably the best strategy: developing and expanding internal capabilities, intellectual property and technologies while simultaneously discovering what customers need. At the intersection of capabilities and needs will be the best innovation opportunities. In my next post we’ll examine the difference between true customer insight and market research.