Previously we looked at the three primary types of “innovation” most often practiced today. Two polar opposites being what I call the Stoic approach or the Maelstrom, where the Stoic is more like continuous improvement and the Maelstrom is more like blue sky directionless brainstorming. The third method is somewhere in between and is more of a striving for the ideal future state. That third method relies heavily on an “innovation narrative.”
Innovation at the Point of Customer Frustration, Whether it is Articulated or Not
Previously I published a post on Apple’s innovation techniques and that my personal analysis of Apple’s approach showed it really wasn’t magic, “Business Strategy and IT Strategy to Reproduce Apple Innovation.” Apple’s approach, as telegraphed by Steve Jobs, has always been to address customer frustration points or areas of strong customer desire that the marketplace is not addressing.
As an example, the other day I saw a Dyson vacuum cleaner advertisement. After addressing the innovations of a bag-less vacuum, and replacing the wheels with a large pivot ball Mr. Dyson said their mission was simple, to “solve the obvious problems others seem to ignore.” This is the perfect example of developing innovative solutions around customer frustrations. In this case the vacuum cleaner bag and wheels had become so accepted and routine that it is doubtful many customers articulated those problems.
The same innovative approach requires a business to understand their customers, intimately know what they are looking for and why, and then understand what the frustrations or the limitations of the current products or services are. From there a narrative of the new product or service can be created, innovated, piloted, adjusted, and then rolled out to the marketplace.
The key to innovation success is to directly connect all innovation efforts to a specific customer or business purpose. That connection requires you to get close enough to your customers and your marketplace to understand their frustrations, but also their difficult to articulate desires.
Today’s Innovation is Often More About the “Creative Maelstrom” than Innovation
Innovation purists would not agree with the limitations or restrictions on the process that I have proposed. But innovation purists also live in a creative fantasyland where they do not allow constraints like budgets, deadlines, practical application, or other real-world considerations to get in the way of their creative maelstrom.
An ugly reality for the “creative purists” who insist that is what innovation requires is the limitations of business. Businesses of all kinds have limited resources, limited capital, and limited ability to create new things. So an effective method to reduce the amount of time and cost to create new products or services is needed. And not just time to market with some incremental change or enhancement, but completely new products or services.
On the other hand, many businesses are far too restrictive and shortsighted on what they refer to as “innovation.” What many call “innovation” is a pursuit of small, incremental changes that yield smaller and smaller benefits over time. This type of “innovation” is usually minor adjustments of existing products or services. And while this focus on continuous improvement is useful for controlling costs, quality, and even customer satisfaction, it rarely produces innovative breakthroughs. If an innovative breakthrough occurs within the context of continuous improvement it is generally on a micro scale (dealing with a small component or feature of a product or service) and rarely on a macro scale (a completely new design departure for a totally new product or service).
Stretch Innovation Examples with the Application of the Innovation Narrative
A very reasonable approach to innovation of new products or services is similar to that taken by Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell.
When Edison set out to invent the light bulb he was trying to solve a particular problem–, that problem was known and in some of the historical literature he was quite aware of the “ideal future state” he was trying to achieve. He wanted to bring light to the darkness without the use of fire. He sought to solve a customer focused problem by replacing the use of fire and fuel oils with an electric bulb. The idea was to eliminate the risks of fire hazard or noxious fumes that the current flame based technology presented.
Edison’s relentless pursuit and passionate drive to produce a light bulb shows his understanding of pursuing an ideal future state innovation narrative, even if it wasn’t spelled out like modern mission and vision statements.
The same could be said of Alexander Graham Bell. Bell’s narrative was that he wanted people who were far away to be able to talk to each other as if they were next door. Bell’s was also a relentless pursuit of an ideal future state innovation narrative even if the narrative wasn’t written on paper.
The difference with this approach and those great history-making inventors is the addition of a structured approach to defining and then articulating the innovation effort. To that end I have devised a very simple approach, or the beginnings of a process model, for moving from innovation to market “From Collaboration to Innovation to Market – Toward a Working Model.”
Creative Writing in the Innovation Process (The “Innovation Narrative”)
I was recently reading an article about a creative writer who was candid about his inability to live up to the authors he admired. As a result he retooled his creative skills and turned to industrial design. From what I saw some of the things he created were eye-pleasing (and popular) works of art with a functional design.
He mentioned that he started the design work because he could construct a narrative to immerse the customer in each individual product. I’ll call that the “innovation narrative.”
That is certainly an interesting approach and a great use of his creative writing talents. There isn’t any reason why this type of design methodology couldn’t be used by business and technology.
The Stretch option, or the striving for the future state requires the construction of a narrative which would be similar to a home elevation or artist’s rendering rather than the entire blueprint. Over time the details of the blueprint are filled in by the innovation architects within an organization. Those innovation architects “build out” the various parts of the future state through development of new products or services which move toward the ideal future state.
This type of innovation, design, and prototyping is similar to creating mission and vision statements for a business, but they are product or service focused. They are discrete and customer or market specific.
The Innovation Narrative as a Change in Innovative Design Approach
An “innovation narrative” is nothing but a fancy name for a written statement about the end state of a new product or service. It incorporates positive changes about what customers do not like about a particular product or service with things a customer likes, or desires. It also looks at un-served, underserved, or completely new applications for the product or service. The narrative carefully evaluates the marketplace from an outsider’s perspective, or as close as possible from the customer’s perspective to understand where there are unmet desires for a product or service. This tries to capture a customer’s perspective of “if only I could do X with this…” or “I wish this would…” or in the service sector “why do they…” or “why don’t they…” or “they really should (or should not)…”
Done effectively this narrative then serves as a guiding framework for development of the new products or services. For products, it generally involves a departure from the current “form, fit, or functions” of current products. For services, this would involve significant modifications to service delivery methods, quality, and polish or composure.
The skill to create an “innovation narrative” already exists in the marketing departments of most mid and large sized companies. What is lacking is the capture of the critical data to develop the narrative and its timing.
Marketing Involvement in Innovation
At many companies marketing involvement frequently occurs after a new or revised product is either conceived or already underway. The marketing department then sets about how to position that business item and how to help the sales force sell it and generate “buzz” around it. But if marketing veterans were involved in the early design stages, at what engineering refers to as the “fuzzy front end” they might be able to make a dramatic difference. They can use their sales and marketing talent and ability to create an “innovation narrative” around what the new product or service should be at final delivery in the marketplace. They could create that future state product or service that can only happen if they had a magic wand.
Marketing, sales, and engineering or design should be involved right from the beginning. Talented marketers generally have a fair understanding of how to position products or services and the sales people are responsible for selling them. By incorporating key sales and marketing people into the early stages of product or service development the entire process becomes more customer-focused.
The idea here is to create a narrative that contains the details of the customer frustrations and marketplace aspirations. The narrative should include the “hard stuff” like the articulation of customer aspirations that the marketplace has a hard time articulating. And it has to be more than just meaningless marketing hype too, it must contain enough detail to immerse the narrative in the customer’s actual perspective about the new product or service.