Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Innovation Building Block 2 - important, unsolved problem or opportunity

I'm going back to basics for a handful of blog posts - back to what I call the innovation building blocks.  In the first blog I wrote about the importance of defining an innovation bias in your culture.  In this episode of the continuing series on innovation building blocks, I'm going to be focusing on the importance of an important and unsolved problem or opportunity.

To which you'd say:  no kidding.  And in general terms you'd be right - this should be obvious, but in so many ways innovation sponsors and innovation teams miss the mark on what should be a predicate to doing innovation work.  It's a lot more challenging to create, define and validate an important and unmet need or opportunity than you might think.

There are a handful of reasons for this.  I will be addressing three or four in this blog post.

Our technology or their need?

One of the first fallacies is that everyone needs what you've got.  Just as the old saying goes - when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail - so too with your capabilities or technologies.  There is far too much technology push when it comes to innovation.  Companies believe that since they have a new technology, simply getting the technology into the marketplace should be considered innovation.  Worse, since it is their technology and by all accounts a very interesting and valuable technology, it should be easy to push into the marketplace and gain rapid adoption.

What customers want and need are solutions (not technologies) that help them address real challenges or problems, that help them do things with less effort or more efficiency.  In the end, they could care less about the technology.  Do you really think most people understand how Google works, or how it makes money?  Start with the idea of market pull or finding unmet needs rather than pushing technology.

Starting with the customer in mind

OK, if we don't start the work with our technology in the forefront, what do we do?  Start with the customer or prospect in mind.  Understand their wants and needs, and the importance and relevance of the gaps or challenges in their lives.  This will sometimes be obvious, and will sometimes require real insight or even a leap of faith.

Identifying needs comes from real empathy and interaction with customers and prospects.  Rarely will asking a customer what they want or need lead to new insight.  It will require deeper observation, using ethnographic and design thinking skills to uncover unmet needs.  Few large companies do this work well because it is not a common research task and because it is qualitative, not quantitative.

I've also used with some success the strategy canvas from Blue Ocean Strategy, to identify a range of undermet or overmet needs.

However, identifying an unfulfilled need is not enough.  Unless you are Steve Jobs and can intuit what customers want, you'll want to do some prototyping and testing to validate the need and customers' willingness to acquire a new product or service.

Getting there first

Sometimes, it makes sense to skate to where the puck will be, rather than where it is.  This is what Gretzky said about hockey, and it is true in innovation as well. Some opportunities emerge based on shifts in the marketplace, technology introductions that transform competitive landscapes or demographic or societal shifts.  Whole segments can emerge and disappear relatively quickly.

How can we skate to the opportunities even before they emerge?  You have to work on future trends and identify emerging needs or opportunities and identify them before others do.  This work requires carefully watching the markets, assessing trends and forecasting some likely scenarios, to understand how the future may unfold, and what new opportunities may emerge, what new needs may be exposed due to those changes. When you see this opportunity, moving quickly to fill it before others do provides a significant advantage, what my co-author and I called pre-emption.

Innovation without context is opinion

Far too frequently, companies conduct innovation work without trying to find an important and unmet need or opportunity.  Gaining this information is what I call gathering innovation context. The needs, wants, priorities, unmet gaps and emerging trends provide context to let good innovators know where the opportunities lie.  With this context, creating new ideas or identifying new solutions or technologies is simplified.  Without this context, all innovation is supposition, guesswork and opinion.

It's difficult to do good discovery work (what I've discussed in this post) without creating a bias for innovation (which was the topic of the previous post). These building blocks aren't simply foundational, they are also mutually supportive.  Without a bias for innovation, teams and executives will skip past the context setting to get more rapidly to what they consider the main event - the idea generation and validation.  This is why so many innovation projects seem to produce the same results - without new context, the old context is substituted or adopted, and the same ideas appear to be valid.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 9:08 AM


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