Stop inventing cool shit your customer doesn’t want


Methodry founder Nathan Baird.

Innovation could be one of the most important business, social and economic activities to be undertaken during these unprecedented times, yet our success rates at innovating are really poor.

According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, 95% of new products fail.

What’s more, “most startups fail”, says Eric Ries, a startup guru and author of the Lean Startup.  

Why do so many innovations fail?

Because too many organisations still waste their time inventing solutions for non-existent customer needs!

In other words, teams fall into the trap of ‘let’s make some really cool shit’ and ‘if the customer doesn’t like it, they just don’t know what is good for them!’

However, the reality is that more innovation and startups fail from a lack of customers than a failure of the product or technology.

In a study of 2000 product innovation projects, Robert G Copper identified the number one factor behind innovation failure was “a lack of thoroughness in identifying real needs in the marketplace”, with teams often “making assumptions in order to justify the project”. 

Jumping to solutions

This jumping-to-the-solution mentality, so prevalent in the corporate and startup world, means teams are too often skipping the all too important ‘front end’ of the innovation process.

The ‘front end’ of innovation being customer research, the distillation of customer needs and insights, idea generation,  prototyping, and testing desirable, feasible and viable concepts.

The time pressures to launch and our greater comfort in solutioning and building stuff are the main drivers of skipping or doing these stages poorly.

Speed in innovation is very important, but not at the expense of managing the innovation journey properly.

In fact, it is often a false economy, with this rushing of stages resulting in more defects, more rework and more costly failures in the middle and back end of the process.

The further you progress along the innovation journey, the more time- and resource-intensive and expensive it becomes.

Furthermore, by jumping to the solution you are going to narrow too soon.

If your solution fails in market testing (and it’s likely to because you haven’t started by identifying an important and unmet customer need first) you are left with nowhere to go except back to the drawing board and more jumping to the solution.

And so the continuous cycle of pivoting and re-pivoting occurs: solution, test, fail, solution, test, fail.

A stitch in time saves nine

So getting your upfront work done right is critical; it lays the foundation for everything that follows.

As the old adage says, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.

In other words, putting the time in early ultimately helps you get to market quicker and ensures you build a superior, unique and relevant new product — which is the number one driver of innovation success, according to Robert Cooper

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you think you have identified a great idea that meets a market need, then go and test it, by all means.

But if you want to increase your chances at success and build a sustainable startup or innovation program, then start with the customer, or, as Ash Maurya, author of both Running Lean and Scaling Lean says, “fall in love with the problem, not the solution”.

Master the front end of innovation

Three methodologies that can help your teams become more customer-centric and master the front end of innovation are:

  1. Design thinking;
  2. Business model canvas; and
  3. Lean startup.

The key to success in adopting these methods is to use them in the right way, at the right time, and in the right sequence.

My method for integrating these methodologies is to start with design thinking to firstly identify customer needs that they want to see solved and then generating and testing solutions that solve these needs.

Following validation that we have a desirable solution, we flow into using the business model canvas to map out the feasibility and viability elements of the solution.

We then iterate between business model canvas and lean startup. This involves prototyping, testing and learning to run experiments to de-risk and validate the solution and business model.

Only once we’ve validated that we have a desirable, feasible and viable solution, do we move into the more expensive and time-consuming back end of innovation.

Getting the front end of innovation right is the key to unlocking innovation and startup success.

Just like you wouldn’t skip laying the foundations when building a house, you shouldn’t skip laying the foundations for successful innovation. 

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