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Why innovation mustn’t start with an idea

I met with the head of innovation at a large manufacturing company last week. She had requested a meeting to get some help with her company’s innovation program. I began by asking the innovation head about her company’s current approach.

She excitedly told me about how her team had recently put in place an online suggestion box, which allowed all employees to submit ideas. The communications team got involved and put up colourful posters around head office to encourage staff to put forward their innovation gems.

Within weeks of launching the program, the innovation team was inundated with over 200 ideas. Everyone became very excited about this vanity metric (because let’s face it, it sounds good, but is pretty meaningless).

I asked the innovation head, “What were the ideas like?”

Her mood shifted. “Well, they weren’t fantastic…”

It turns out, these 200 ideas were not game changers for the organisation. Instead, they consisted of suggestions such as having 3ply rather than 2ply toilet paper in the bathrooms, having free chocolate in the company kitchen, and firing certain managers within the organisation.

And then, to make matters worse, the team realised they would need to provide feedback to every single idea submitter to ensure engagement in the program didn’t take a nose dive. Two months post-program, the team are still trying to work through the 200 idea submitters to provide meaningful feedback.

And so, after a lack lustre first attempt at garnering innovative ideas, the innovation head had requested a meeting.

While this scenario sounds quite unappealing, it is surprisingly common. Many people mistakenly believe that innovation starts with ideas. However, there are two major problems with this approach:

  • If you don’t set a clear challenge to solve, you risk receiving ideas that are completely off strategy (unless improving the bathroom experience in your office happens to be an important strategy).
  • You almost guarantee receiving ideas that have no connection to what actually matters to your customers.

After determining the broad areas of focus for your innovation efforts, innovation has to start with the customer. And the biggest clue for innovation opportunities are looking for customer frustrations.

To uncover customer frustrations, spend time observing your customer use your product or service. Look for annoyed facial expressions. Keep an eye out for workarounds. Listen out for when they curse.

In addition to watching customers, ask them questions around what frustrates them about your product or service, competitors’ offerings, and the industry in general. Make sure you don’t lead the witness and keep your questions open and exploratory.

Once you have identified frustrations, prioritise the ones that are the most frustrating, the most important for the customer to solve, and the ones that happen most frequently. And from there, start to craft challenges for your team or organisation to solve.

A great example of a company solving a customer frustration is Filld. Filld set out to solve the frustration of filling up your car with fuel. It’s a frustration that many of us take for granted, yet I know when my fuel gauge is heading towards empty, finding a spare five minutes to fill up the tank feels like the biggest inconvenience.

Filld works by drivers requesting a fuel top up via the Filld mobile app. A Filld driver then comes direct to your car and fills up your tank. Payment is made via the app.

More recently, car manufacturer Bentley teamed up with Filled, and has set up a system to automate fuel tank fill up. When the car dips below a quarter of the tank, a signal is automatically sent to a Filld driver who comes to refill the tank.

So rather than waiting to be struck by inspiration for an idea, or worse yet, putting out a call for ideas in your organisation, start by understanding what matters to your customer, and move forward from there.

About the author

Why innovation mustn’t start with an ideaDr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture where innovation thrives. Dr Imber was recently profiled by Dynamic Business: Feed unconscious minds, embrace good failure: Dr Amantha Imber talks innovation strategies. She has also contributed guest articles to the site.

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Amantha Imber

Amantha Imber

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