Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Learning to see the whole Elephant in innovation

Today I'd like to use two parables to describe why so many firms fail to identify interesting innovation opportunities.

The Blind men and the Elephant

I tell the story of the six blind men and the elephant to a lot of my clients, because a significant amount of innovation work seems very similar to the story.  If you aren't familiar with the story, the concept goes something like this:

Six learned blind men live in a village.  One day an elephant comes to the village, and no one is quite sure what to make of the elephant.  The blind men, who are wise, are brought to the elephant to describe its character and makeup.  Each of the blind men touches the elephant and describes the elephant from his perspective.  One touches the elephant and describes the elephant from that perspective.  Another touches the elephant on the trunk, another on the leg and so forth.  All of them are partially correct, but none manage to piece their perspectives together to see the whole elephant. 
If you are interested, you can go further at the Wikipedia page or see the famous poem written about the blind men and the elephant, which has the interesting stanza:
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.

We, today, are a lot like the blind men when it comes to innovation, especially when we are focused on discovering new customer needs and expectations.  In many discussions about what "customers" want, it often seems like we have a group of learned blind men who know only their particular perspective.  Some speak about EXISTING customers and their needs.  Some speak about POTENTIAL customers and their needs.  Some speak about the firms internal CAPABILITIES and TECHNOLOGIES, as if this matters.  Some talk about future SCENARIOS and TRENDS that may occur.  Some talk about specific SEGMENTS of customers, ignoring others.  Some will talk about what they believe to be true, not what customers have told them.  In the end, many clients often have very narrow, segmented and biased interpretations of customer needs, often influenced by current market conditions and the existing capabilities of the business, rather than what they've learned by interacting with customers.

To truly discover customer needs, we need to define the width and breadth of potential customers (both those who currently buy from us, those who currently don't buy from us and the potential future customers) and their current and future needs and expectations.  Only then are we prepared to discuss what customers will want in the future.  This means a divergent-convergent approach to customer needs is necessary, first enlarging the scope, discovering all the potential customers as possible, then drilling in deeply with those actual and potential customers to uncover and understand current needs and unmet or undiscovered needs.

Another parable that helps 

There's another saying that is also valuable here.  That one is also familiar - can't see the forest for the trees.  In context here, it means we've looked at the elephant so long that we've lost sight of the elephant.  Again, human nature is to divide and conquer, to break up larger problems into smaller problems because they are easier to think about and manage.  We'd prefer to think about an elephant as the sum of a tusk, a tail, a leg, an ear and so forth, but the elephant is larger and more complex than that.  While we are simplifying the elephant, we are missing the opportunities that exist in the complexity.  True innovation is based on both small continuous changes to known challenges or problems AND rapid disruptive change to unmet needs or undiscovered opportunities.  The reason innovation often looks so small and insignificant is because we forget the second portion - rapid disruptive change.  That requires asking what if the elephant didn't exist at all, or what might replace the elephant in a different setting or situation.

Many clients struggle with big, disruptive innovation because their corporate culture and their personal training and bias emphasizes small, quick changes focused on discrete, incremental challenges or problems over larger, disruptive change that may require rethinking the status quo or changing the business model or operating paradigm.  When the focus is too small and too narrow - the trees over the forest - innovation results seem small and insignificant.  It's only when you can see the forest, and imagine how to replace the forest, or find a different forest all together - that disruptive innovation will occur.  This is what your nimble competitors are doing - imagining a world without the forest, rather than trying to spruce up the forest.

What's this got to do with innovation?

Gaining insight into customer needs is paramount if you want to innovate.  Most of our clients understand this.  What they fail to understand is that existing market research or market insight is often short-sighted, biased and backward looking.  They recruit internal experts who describe customers in the same way that the blind men described the elephant.  What is needed is to go into the field with the perspective of a beginner's mind and confront the "elephant" - your customers and prospects - with a new perspective and greater empathy.  Learn to both engage the customer and enlarge the problem set.  Until you can do those two things, your customer insights, ethnography, market research or whatever you want to call it will simply reinforce what you are already doing, rather than introduce you to new innovation opportunities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:00 AM


Blogger Milon Khan said...

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