Don’t Just Ask, Innovate

Don’t Just Ask, Innovate

My first Ipod

A number of my clients have asked a version of this question: “What do my customers want?” While it’s not a bad question to ask, I encourage them to ask themselves a different question:

“What haven’t my customers asked for that they don’t even know that they want?”

As Robert Lutz boldly said in his book, Guts — one of my favorite business books from the 90′s — customers don’t know what they want. In another one of my favorites, The 4-Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferriss makes a similar statement when he discusses the value, or lack thereof, of focus groups. In his book, he mentions that focus group participants will often tell you what you want to hear, i.e. “the features of your product are great!” However, once you tell them that the product is available today for the special price of $299 very few attendees, if any, reach for their checkbook. Once they have to part with their own money those features aren’t as attractive as they were a couple of minutes earlier. I have had that experience with focus groups a couple of times myself.

The comments of Lutz and Ferris withstanding, I do believe there is value in engaging customers and asking for their opinions. However, I also believe there is greater value in understanding “the why” behind what they are asking for as well as the insight of what they will use.

One of my favorite examples of innovation is the Sony Walkman from the 80′s. Did anybody go to Sony and say, “I’m getting awfully tired of carrying this boom box on my shoulder. Couldn’t you give me something compact that I can clip onto my belt to listen to cassettes and radio on the go?” Probably not. Sony understood the unspoken need and created a product that many consumers instantly wanted and couldn’t live without once they saw the Walkman.

Similarly, possibly the most innovative company in the world, Apple, created the iPod. This wasn’t just a new way to enjoy music… it was a stylish way to enjoy music. No one asked Apple to develop a device that was visually pleasing, or with convenient sizes like the iPod Shuffle, but that’s exactly what they did.

Granted, small businesses may not have the resources of Apple to fund their innovations. However, not every innovative idea needs to be an expensive or elaborate concept. As we discussed previously in “Innovation in Offering the Ordinary,” sometimes simply creating a better branded experience, as Mobul is doing in offering DME, is the idea that takes the mundane to a new level that is something special. (See related video below.)

These are just a few examples of innovations. I know there are millions more out there. We would love to hear from you. How does your business innovate?

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