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Should You Innovate With Your Customers or Not? Part 2

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Should You Innovate With Your Customers or Not? Part 2

In part 1 of this two-article series, we began exploring the ongoing debate in innovation as to whether or not companies should involve customers in their innovation efforts and act upon their ideas. I also presented arguments and success stories of both the proponents and opponents of customer involvement in innovation. The pro camp argues that we should listen to customers and innovate by giving them what they want. The contra camp counters that customers don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Contra camp aficionados include prominent creative business leaders such as Henry Ford, Akio Morita, and Steve Jobs. So which camp is right, and when? And how may we possibly reconcile the different views?

Which camp is right?

“There are two kinds of truth, small truth and great truth. You can recognize a small truth because its opposite is a falsehood. The opposite of a great truth is another great truth,” noted the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. I believe that the debate between proponents and opponents of customer involvement in innovation is a case of two great truths facing each other. Both sides of the debate have their valid arguments and supporting success stories to prove their points. 

So who’s right? It depends on the situation — or in other words, what business context you’re in and what you want to achieve. You may ask the following questions to gauge whether or not you should listen to and involve your customers in an innovation project:

  • Do you want to focus on improving an existing process, product, or service? Or are you aiming to create a “new to the world”-innovation in your project? The more disruptive your targeted innovation, the less customer involvement is advisable. 
  • How complicated is your business and innovation challenge? How much do your customers know about your product and service, and the relevant domain knowledge and technologies? The less complex your innovation case, and the more intimately your customers are familiar with it, the more you can listen to them and involve them in the process. 
  • How much time do you have at hand to produce innovation results? The less time you have at hand for an innovation project, the more you should consider involving your customers. Listening to your customers’ expressed needs and ideas is a cost-effective  and fast way to improve existing processes, products, and services immediately or in the short run. However, it’s unlikely that these ideas and typically more incremental innovations will boost your revenues, profits, and margins in the medium- to long-term.
  • Whom do you target with the innovation? A mass-market, a smaller niche segment, or a narrow ‘tribe” of sophisticated elite users? The broader the market you target, the higher your risk of mistakenly listening to and innovating upon the wishes and suggestions of a non-representative sample of customers.
  • On what level of abstraction does the innovation challenge reside? • The narrower and more specific your innovation focus, the easier and more sensible it is to involve customers, vice versa.
  • How dynamic is your industry? How fast do trends change? The faster the speed of change, the more problematic it is to involve customers who typically lag behind trends.

How to reconcile the opposing views?

While pondering the contextual rules of thumb listed above, I spotted an overriding approach to reconciling the opposing positions of the two camps in the customer involvement in innovation-debate. Innovation projects vary in the degree of impact that they make in the market, and related, the time and efforts required to pull off an innovation. Consequently, we can distinguish four different innovation types with an accelerating risk-reward profile — continuous improvements, incremental improvements/innovations, evolutionary innovations, and disruptive revolutionary innovations (see the graphic below):

  • Involve customers intensively in innovation efforts that focus on continuous improvements in your processes, products, and services. For example, improving the consistency of a tuna salad and allowing customers to pick their strawberries (instead of having to buy them in prepackaged boxes) are customer ideas that the experiential grocery store chain Stew Leonard implemented successfully.
  • Customer involvement in innovation such as running focus groups may also work well for projects aiming at incremental improvements/innovations of existing products or services (say you want to get ideas or feedback from customers on a new taste or formula variation of a popular product).
  • Invite customers to participate in projects aiming for evolutionary innovations where you want to add substantially more value to your existing customers or expand your offerings to new customer segments. However, here you typically involve customers predominantly in the first stage of the creative process (the Xploration-stage in our X-IDEA innovation method). Thereby, you empathetically listen to them and observe them in their everyday lives interacting with the target object of the innovation project. Moreover, you may also ask them to give you feedback and suggestions on prototypes you’ve built in the critical, realistic evaluation phase. However, in the creative stages (Ideation and Development in X-IDEA) in between, you typically do your own thinking and create your own ideas (that may take inspiration from your learnings during the initial Xploration stage). Two weeks ago, I shared how Ingersoll Rand practiced this approach when they created a substantially improved grinder tool for their industrial clients. We also follow this modus operandi with Thinkergy when we guide clients (especially those from the food or FMCG-industries) through their evolutionary innovation projects with the help of X-IDEA.
  • In your projects targeting revolutionary innovations, however, best practice suggests not to involve your customers actively. This is because they may lack the necessary knowledge on technology, trends, and maybe even their wants and needs related to a “new to the world”-technology or product. For example, while working on the iPhone and iPad, Apple’s development team sought feedback only from its internal “one-man focus group” (named Steve Jobs). As we also discussed in part 1, Akio Morita similarly developed the Sony Walkman with a small product development team against the advice of market research and his internal marketing and finance people (and subsequently sold 400 million units of the Walkman). And thanks to Henry Ford’s unwillingness to listen to customers, we leaped to driving in cars instead of riding on faster horses.

Suppose you’re a member of the pro camp and are unconcerned of potential confidentiality issues. What if you insisted on involving customers in a project pushing for creating a revolutionary innovation? In that case, my advice would be to invite those customers to participate in an innovation project workshop with a more progressive mindset and personality. How can you find them? By using a personal assessment tool created for innovation. For example, Thinkergy’s innovator profiling system TIPS identifies four such trendy, avant-garde profiles located around the Ideas-base. Ideators, Conceptualizers, Promoters, and Imaginative Experimenters tend to be ahead of their times. They can contribute a mix of geeky, trendy, fashionable, or creatively destructive thinking to broaden your internal project team’s views and inspire bold ideas.

Conclusion: Customer involvement in Innovation? It depends

Involve your customers in your innovation projects, and listen to their ideas if

  1. they’re familiar with your products and services,
  2. you want to continuously or incrementally improve these,
  3. you want to evolve your product to a more contemporary version, and
  4. you’re in an industry that is close to your customers’ everyday lives and moves slow enough to allow your customers to keep up with trends and the speed of change.

In all other cases, limit your customers’ involvement in seeking input and feedback at the front- and back-end stages of the innovation process. And especially when you work on a revolutionary innovation that can potentially disrupt the market, better think, and create progressively in your internal innovation team.

  • Do you belong more to the pro or contra camp of whether or not to involve and follow through on customers’ ideas while innovating? Or do you have any other thoughts and ideas that support your side of the debate — or can reconcile the two views?
  • Do you plan to do an innovation project soon? Regardless of whether or not you want to involve customers in your project, please consider inviting Thinkergy as your external expert innovation process guides. Our innovation facilitators would love to guide your team towards tangible innovation results with the help of our award-winning X-IDEA innovation methodContact us if you would like to learn more.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2020


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