Over 25 million copies of the late Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, have been sold. It remains a best-seller three decades after it was first published (1989). The second habit of highly effective people is to “begin with the end in mind.” That simple insight has probably done more to increase national productivity than many impressive technologies. I know it has helped me avoid wasting endless hours flailing around because I learned to clarify the end in mind – to define the objective or problem – before taking action to solve it. This may sound obvious but my experience is that most people are not disciplined about it; they attempt to generate solutions before they have defined the problem. Further, many companies have implemented innovation processes that are doing exactly the opposite of what Covey recommends with predictably poor results.
When it comes to new product innovation, the first habit of highly effective innovators is to discover the target customers’ end in mind. This presents some significant challenges for most companies, however, because they don’t know how to do it. If they talk with customers at all, they often ask customers for solution ideas with questions like, “How can we improve our product/service?” While such questions can be helpful, they limit innovation to incremental improvements because they assume the current solution. Such questions rarely lead to breakthrough innovations or new market creation because they don’t reveal the customers’ underlying needs.
For example, innovators at a drill manufacturer can ask customers, “How can we improve our drills?” and they might learn something helpful. But a more effective line of questioning that will reveal the customers’ unmet needs (opportunities for innovation and growth) would be to ask, “Why do you want to make holes? What are you trying to accomplish? What makes drilling holes go off-track?” Etc.
I have found that when it comes to innovation, “customer needs” are best defined as “the jobs customers want to get done and the criteria they use to measure success when executing those jobs.” These are their ends in mind. And, contrary to popular belief, customers can tell us what they want if we ask them what they want to accomplish rather than asking them for product or service specifications. Understanding what a customer need really is, and that needs are separate and distinct from solutions, enables innovators to define the customers’ problems and objectives before generating solution ideas, thereby dramatically increasing innovation effectiveness. This enables companies to turn innovation and growth into a repeatable business process.
The “failing faster” approach is excellent when if it is used for testing the efficacy of solutions, but not when it is used for validating customer needs. Testing customer needs with prototypes is exactly what Covey taught us NOT to do because it is beginning with a solution idea before the customers’ end in mind has been defined. It’s guessing at the customers’ end in mind which leads to high failure rates, a lot of frustration, wasted time and money, opportunity costs, even reputation damage. All of this is unnecessary but very common for many organizations today.
New product innovators will continue to waste time and money flailing faster until they learn how to discover their target customers’ end in mind before generating solution ideas. Once they learn how to do this, however, they will join the elite ranks of highly effective innovators who repeatedly achieve success rates of over 80%, 2-5 times higher than industry averages.
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.” – Steve Jobs
Reveal needs. Create value. Drive growth.
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Urko Wood helps clients of Reveal Growth find and capitalize on the best opportunities for innovation and growth in their markets. He is one of only a handful of people in North America who are expert practitioners in the breakthrough “jobs-to-be-done” (JTBD) innovation approach that has enabled over 400 of the Fortune 1000 to generate billions of dollars in new revenue and achieve new product success rates of over 80%.