Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Innovation wants and needs

I learned about wants and needs in probably one of the best ways possible:  through the rapid growth and fiery crash of a startup.  There's no better way to learn to ascertain what people WANT new products and services to do, and what they NEED to live their lives with less pain, less stress and less aggravation.  I ran marketing for a firm that segmented and analyzed the behaviors of customers.  We had very good algorithms that helped us group people into very small segments based on the way they "behaved" - how they actually used the product or service.  From that we extrapolated new offerings, new products and new services these small, tightly clustered segments would want and need.  We thought we could offer new products based on what we understood people wanted and how those wants and needs were expressed.  Boy, is there a difference between a want and a need.

That's where I learned the difference between a WANT and a NEED.  I was reminded of this concept when reading Tim Kastelle's blog about Flying Cars.  Paul Krugman and Charlie Stross (one of my new favorite Sci-Fi authors) were talking about the lack of flying cars.  Tim wonders if the lack of flying cars demonstrates the difficulty of disruptive innovation and the tendency for innovators to extrapolate current ideas into the future, rather than dream up completely new ideas.  For example, why would we need flying cars if we could simply teleport everywhere?  Rather than extrapolate existing technologies into the future, we innovators should drop back and solve for the bigger problem.

Another fact that goes unstated:  we've had flying cars since at least the 1950s.  It's not as though we don't have the TECHNOLOGY to create a car that can fly and then drive safely on the ground.  A quick Google search produced this humdinger:  No, the real challenge in this case isn't technological, it's structural.  We simply don't all have runways out in front of our houses, and our neighborhoods are cluttered with a lot of low hanging trees, wires and other impediments to easy flight.  Additionally, flying cars are inefficient and inexpensive.  Krugman can have his flying car anytime he wants.  It's just that most of us won't make that decision now, and probably won't until the design of cities and suburbs is radically altered.

Further, though, is the deeper consideration of wants and needs.  While I may desperately "want" a flying car, deep down I know I don't really "need" a flying car.  I can get back and forth to work and to most of my activities fairly efficiently without a flying car.  That's the difference between an interesting idea and a disruptive innovation - wants and needs.  We all have wants, some of which we may choose to fulfill.  However, we all have needs that demand immediate attention.  Good innovators understand the difference between wants and needs, and solve for the needs.  Inventors, like the individual who created the latest in a long line of flying cars, are solving for the wants of a few very rich and eccentric individuals. 

We innovators are often guilty of glibly tossing around words like "wants" and "needs".  We need to understand the difference, and this is clearly a difference with a distinction.  Wants are interesting and may lead an innovator to potential value, but are often not deeply rooted or key to a person's life.  Additionally, wants often don't scale, that is, they aren't shared by a significant number of other people.  Needs, on the other hand, are more immediate, more closely felt and more likely to be shared.  Innovators must do a better job distinguishing between wants and needs.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:09 AM


Anonymous Hutch Carpenter said...

Love it Jeffrey. Your "flying car vs. teleportation" example reminds me of the apocryphal Henry Ford quote: "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

Point was a general need for faster means to go one place to another. The *need* was there, but not the ability to articulate the solution.

This is an example of people relying on technologies they know today, and expressing their needs in that context. Your post comes at from the other side, flightful fancy on future developments that may not address needs.

Both are cases where the focus on end-user needs is required. To devise potential solutions outside current known technologies; or so that "out there" ideas can be assessed against true user needs.


1:00 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Hi Jeffrey,

What is your advice given the challenge of pioneering new major markets for new disruptive technologies. (from a sales/business development perspective)

Challenges include:
Typically, no one has heard of your company; You are introducing a technology, solution or product that most were never aware of; Your value proposition not initially understood; Few, if any leads; A new budget may need to be created; and to be most successful you'll need to proactively establish key executive leadership as your sponsors?


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