I’ve just read an interesting new book on the theme of customer integration into the innovation process and thought I’d share some thoughts about it.
One of the enduring truths about innovation is the importance of understanding the needs of the user. Back in the 1970s the influential Project SAPPHO research on innovation success and failure showed the key influence of this factor. Put simply, organizations that spent time understanding the needs of their users were more successful at innovation.
As a principle that has stood the test of time – but principles need practices to make them come to life. This book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the routines which organizations need to put in place to deliver innovation success through developing this approach. As the authors put it the aim is to offer ‘ a practical guide through the jungle of customer integration methods’. And it does so pretty well.
A strength of the book is that it doesn’t simply focus on the well-researched area of business-to-consumer (B2C) markets but recognises that the same principles apply in the field of business-to-business (B2B) markets. In many ways this poses a bigger challenge since B2B suppliers need to think about user inputs to their innovation thinking not only from their immediate customers but also from the customers of those customers.
Of course there’s something of a paradox involved in working with customers as a source of innovation insight. On the plus side they are a key potential input of the ‘front end of innovation. As Eric von Hippel and many others have pointed out, users not only have insights, they can also lead thinking in key directions. Accessing the ‘sticky’ information which they hold about the context in which innovations will be used can help configure them to fit those situations and increase the adoption potential across a wide base.
But simply asking customers what they want won’t be sufficient; the risk here is that they will come up with variations on what they already know. It’s an old challenge – Henry Ford is reputed to have said that if he’d asked people what they wanted to improve transportation they would have said ‘faster horses’. Steve Jobs was one of many who recognised the need to lead the market, taking them along untrodden pathways and opening up new trajectories. Roberto Verganti makes a similar point about the need to surprise customers, arguing for a role for ‘design driven’ innovation.
Importantly this is not simply a variation on the old theme of ‘knowledge push’ but an approach which tries to work with customer insights at an early stage – involving them as ‘lead users’. The challenge – and one which ‘Innovation heroes’ helps with – is finding ways to operationalize this. What are the tools and techniques which organizations can use to build in customer integration throughout the process?
That’s a second strength of the book – it avoids the current over-emphasis on the ‘front end’ of innovation. There’s plenty of work on crowdsourcing and broadcast search, looking for inputs and insights at the ideation and early stages of the process. But, as this book points out, there is scope for integrating the customer/user perspective throughout the process, from initial idea through concept development and the various iterations of development prior to launch.
The authors use the concept of ‘solution space’ to describe the arena in which user ideas can play a role and maps this as a series of consecutive diamond shapes following the phases of the innovation process. Each diamond has both a divergent and a convergent aspect, with the potential role of users in both contributing ideas for the former and judgment/critique for the latter. This model of the new product/service development process resembles the kind of picture found in design thinking methods and the high frequency learning loops characteristic of ‘agile’ methods. It also reflects current thinking about the role of prototypes and testing with users as a source of feedback, helping pivot ideas towards more fruitful directions.
The real value of the book is as a well-structured catalogue of tools and approaches to help throughout this process. There is exploration of customers as a source of creative insights and ideas but also, helpfully a detailed consideration of how organizations can tap into latent needs and ideas. Empathic design, ethnographic methods, construct based approaches and other tolls provide a valuable addition to help complement the articulated voice of the customer. And there is a good chapter on the role of customers as evaluators and the many different ways in which this information can be captured and organised.
The book also offers good coverage of methodologies like quality function deployment and outcome driven innovation which attempt to build customer insights in via systematic approaches – and to ensure that these voices get heard across the organization. One of the key messages is that customer integration needs to connect the end user with various different functional areas within the organization if it is to make a contribution – it can’t simply be a sales and marketing activity.
The final chapter presents some valuable concepts around this them of customer integration, particularly in terms of the development of capabilities within the organization to work with it. They identify three core areas – customer information acquisition, customer information dissemination and customer information utilization – and highlight the need to develop organizational capabilities for working with all of these.
One minor quibble – although the book has a helpful discussion of the need to segment customers (not everyone is an articulate and enthusiastic contributor to the innovation process) it often conflates the role of ‘user’ with that of ‘customer. Whilst in many situations this is not an issue there are contexts where it is critical. End-users may not always be the adoption decision markets but they are the recipients of the innovations which emerge. Think of health care, for example, where there are growing calls for patients to have more input to the development of products, services and processes in which they are the final consumer. And the B2B marketplace is again characterised by a separation between the intermediate ‘customer’ and the eventual end-user; once again the needs and insights of this final group are important to build into the innovation development process. The book approaches these questions at various points but then moves away from a more nuanced discussion.
Overall this is a well-written and structured book which captures a wealth of useful research experience in the field and offers a rich variety of tools and techniques on which organization can draw in developing their customer integration capabilities.
‘Innovation heroes; Understanding customers as a valuable innovation resource’, by Fiona Schweizer and Joe Tidd, World Scientific Publishing, London, 2018.