There’s an interesting article in BusinessWeek about how innovation requires executives to periodically step back from three things: “decision attitudes,” “users,” and “your assumptions.” I really like this quote from Sir Denys Lasdun, the English architect, saying that the architect’s job is to give a client:
Not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time.
My take: In a previous post, I discussed the power of an approach called “deliberation without attention.” The idea is similar; step back and let your mind process information in a different way. It’s particularly valuable technique for complex situations. Executives definitely need to learn when to step back and reassess a situation or a decision.
While stepping back from “decision attitudes” and “your assumptions” makes intuitive sense, the idea of stepping back from “users” may seem to conflict with customer-centric behavior. But it really doesn’t.
Breakthrough innovations often address needs that customers can’t articulate with solutions that customers can’t imagine. So customers feedback can not be used to define the requirements. Does this mean that innovation is devoid of customers? No!
Instead of looking at direct responses to questions, breakthrough innovations often require a different type of customer input: Observation. Companies need to understand the core needs and desires of target customers through ethnographic techniques and through observations about larger trends in society (like the rise in social networking) to extrapolate (and hypothesize) what type of offering may “click” with those customers.
Customer feedback plays a very important role in fine-tuning the offering. Once prototypes of the solutions exist, companies need to observe (not just survey) how target customers use them. Keep in mind that customers’ first reaction to those offerings may not be nearly as important as their feelings after using them for a while.
The bottom line: Breakthrough innovations require understanding customers, not listening to them.