Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Don't bring a knife to a gun fight

I've struggled to write this post, because the concepts I want to write about are very important and often not considered in an innovation effort.  I don't want to obfuscate the concepts but also am cautious about overly simplifying as well.  I've used an old, probably hackneyed expression as the title, but what it is meant to convey is the concept of arriving at a future state with the wrong idea, even though that idea seemed promising at the time.

We all (mostly) agree that innovation is creating new ideas and putting them into some action that's valuable for customers or clients.  Whether the innovation is a new product, or a new business model, or new experience, is less important than the fact that the concept meets and fills an important, relevant need that some customer or client experiences. 

The problem is that most of us consider these problems in current day frameworks.  As innovators following a methodology, we do the qualitative research, using ethnography or voice of the customer or needs based innovation to understand the needs of the prospective client base.  Many firms at this point then make a fatal mistake - they project those needs into an uncertain and highly variable future.  We'd all prefer that the future look very much like the present. Ideally it will look very similar to today, only slightly more interesting and we'll all be slightly slimmer.  If you've followed the news in the recent several years, you'd recognize that disruptions and significant changes in our expectations happen all the time.  As one Wall Street reporter once said, the most commonly used word in analyst descriptions of Wall Street results is "surprise".

So, clearly we can't create ideas today that will solve the problem that we notice today.  It will take time to develop an idea, test it and prepare the concept for launch.  So we should develop an idea with some understanding of what the alternative futures may look like.  Will the future two to three years from now look very much like the conditions today?  There are people in Greece, and in Iceland, and in Louisiana that hope very much that the conditions in the near future look very different.  Just a few weeks ago no one predicted the largest oil catastrophe in US history would occur, and now consider all the resources that are being applied to solve that problem.  What if your big idea one year ago was to build a new fishing fleet in Louisiana?  Would you have considered the possibility that while that may have been a good idea, there were possible scenarios that would cause you to consider other alternatives?

My point here is that we don't innovate in a vacuum and time and conditions don't stop to allow our perfectly conceived ideas to become true based on conditions we assumed.  Our ideas meet the market that exists when we launch the idea and must be relevant to those consumers and their needs.  Innovating to address an existing need is clearly relevant - but will that need be as important, and as relevant in two years when you can actually release the new product?  Have you considered the possible futures and how those future market conditions will effect the uptake and relevance of your new innovation?  Given the pace of change, especially in the world financial markets and economies, and the volatility in the market today, any innovator that isn't spending time thinking about the future market and future conditions for their new products and services is likely to create interesting ideas that fail to satisfy the needs that they had forecast, because market conditions changed.

While it is important to understand customer needs, "jobs to be done" and find "Blue Oceans" it is also important to understand the various future scenarios under which those needs are still relevant, and those scenarios where those needs are no longer important.  Only when you marry the needs you discover with the possible future scenarios will you be able to make your best innovation investments.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:09 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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