The best innovations solve real problems. They provide solutions that customers are prepared to pay money for. So it seems to make sense that we should listen carefully to customer requests. But this can be a mistake. In the famous words of Steve Jobs, “It isn’t the customer’s job to know what they want.” The customer will often express the kind of solution he would like to see. Listen politely to his request but spend time observing the problem at first hand. Then think laterally about how to solve it.
In his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen explains why so many companies fail with their innovations. They make the classic mistake of listening to their customers. Customers are typically unadventurous and unimaginative when it comes to ideas. They ask for incremental innovations to your current offerings. “Please make your product faster, quieter, cheaper, more energy efficient, available in local language etc.” This leads companies to keep trying to improve the quality and effectiveness of their current products or services. It leads them away from trying bold new initiatives or alternative approaches. What is more, customers are initially reluctant to adopt radical new solutions until eventually it becomes clear that they are the new hot product.
Consider this recent remarkable innovation from Mexico – the road that repairs itself. With a mix of additives and old rubber tires, the new pavement creates a putty that reacts to water. When water hits the road, the putty makes calcium silicates that fill any cracks, producing a constantly self-repairing road. Do you think the customer asked for this? I don’t. The customer probably asked for a better road surface which would last longer. The problem is holes in the road. The inventor focussed on that and came up with a remarkable innovation.
It is the same story with other big innovations. Spectacle wearers did not ask for disks to fit on their eyes – but contact lenses were a big success. Mobile phone users and laptop users wanted higher performance and lower prices. None asked for a hybrid device. But Steve Jobs introduced the iPad tablet. It was initially greeted with some scepticism but went on to be an enormous winner. Surveys of taxi users showed that they wanted more availability of taxis and lower prices. The obvious answer is to issue more licences for taxis. The real problem is how to significantly increase the supply of customised transport. Travis Kalanick created an entirely new model, Uber, based on the spare capacity of drivers who are happy to give someone a lift for a payment.
So by all means involve the customer. Run your surveys, focus groups and questionnaires. But treat the outputs with care. They are signals to be aware of, not signposts that you must follow. It is not always best to give customers what they ask for. It is better to solve the problem in a clever, effective and innovative way.
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Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane