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Hear, see, think, and talk for innovation success

January 16, 2013

In the innovation business, we've had some spirited discussions about capturing user needs and turning them into opportunities for innovation. Everyone recognizes the value in listening to the voice of the customer and using this to guide design strategies. There is, however, disagreement in how literal one should be when following that voice. Some say firms should prioritize needs articulated by their customers. Conversely, others believe firms should trust their intuition and gut feel to postulate what users really want.

The problem with this debate is that there are smashing successes and resounding failures on both sides. We've seen examples where gut feel and intuition were used to develop products and services that were intellectually interesting but proved to be irrelevant or unwanted. And we've seen instances where slavishly prioritizing articulated customer needs led to me-too products or huge missed opportunities for revolutionary innovation. I recently had a great discussion about this with Stephen Ross a Senior Vice President of Ikaria Medical who shared the following:

I'm a sort of amateur photographer, and I remember back not that long ago… I was carrying around a Nokia. It wasn't a smart phone. It was just a regular phone. It didn't have a camera. It was just a phone. And I remember having conversation with people saying, “I don't want other stuff on my phone. I want my phone to just be a phone. If I want to take pictures, I'll get my camera”. Now look! - it’s my camera - I listen to music I find the weather forecast. I make hotel reservations. I do my expenses. I mean, the list goes on and on of all the things that I never thought that I would want to do but I did. Someone else knew what I wanted to do.. and I was wrong.

(5 year comparison of the stock prices of Apple and Nokia)

So if you can fail miserably listening to customer and fail miserably not listening to customers – what’s the right thing to do?

I believe the answer is to HEAR, SEE, THINK and TALK .

Innovation is often the ability to visualize a future that’s invisible to the marketplace (and your competitors) until it arrives.

First, you definitely need to HEAR – listen to users and make sure they have a voice in your future plans.

Beyond listening, you need to SEE – observe what users really do and how they really act. People struggle to think beyond current solutions and observation of people can reveal critical latent needs that escape articulation.

You also need the courage to THINK beyond what you simply hear or see to imagine novel solutions to problems users may not realize they have. Innovation is often the ability to visualize a future that’s invisible to the marketplace (and your competitors) until it arrives.

Finally, because meaningful innovation involves taking a risk, innovation teams need to have a forum to TALK. The failures of being too bold or too conservative can often be mitigated by frank dialogue aimed at balancing the risks and rewards of innovation strategies. R&D and Marketing need to come together on a strategy for features and functions that balance articulated customer wants with latent but unarticulated needs and the innovation teams’ vision for what a future can be.

In my experience, the firms that pay heed to the voice of their customer, support the courage to think beyond latent needs and have a process and culture which allows for a thoughtful and safe discussion have the best chance at innovation success.