Bruce Burton

SmartCompany /

Meeting consumers’ unmet needs requires a structured and rigorous approach to define those needs and their solutions. Guesswork has no place in the process.

Stop guessing!

A couple of episodes ago, I raised the issue of how to define innovation and received some considered opinions. While greatly appreciating the input I found the responses, like most I get when asking this question, too general and incapable of being used in an organisation to improve the way business is done.

So first up today, I’m going on record to share how I define innovation: the process of devising solutions for unmet customer needs. It’s clean and simple and fits neatly between corporate strategy and the beginning of the assessment, design and development processes. And it’s also borrowed from Tony Ulwick, one of the world’s leading thinkers on innovation.

One reason for defining innovation so tightly is so that we can start to identify why it fails.

As consumers go about their daily lives, they have numerous jobs and activities that they need to get done. When no products or services exist to help them perform these jobs or where existing products are inefficient, we find unmet customer needs. As innovators, it is our role to devise solutions for those important but unmet needs, which in turn enables our organisations to develop them into valuable products and services.

But with potentially hundreds of needs (met or unmet) for each job, devising the optimum solution is like trying to solve multiple complex equations simultaneously.

Yet, sadly, companies think that they can solve these equations and devise optimum solutions not by taking a structured and rigorous approach but by guessing! The result is chaotic. They hold brainstorming and creativity sessions, or get consultants to help them generate ideas and then try to assess whether they actually satisfy any needs. It’s a classic example of retrofitting products to customer needs!

Sure sometimes they succeed, but in the vast majority of cases they fail.

The reasons are obvious. This type of approach doesn’t focus on customer needs until after the ideas have been generated.

At best it could only ever stumble upon a small subset of customer needs. At worst it fails completely to uncover the entire universe of customer needs. As a result, companies run the very real and high risk of missing the real “gems”. These gems are the opportunities that represent those important but unmet needs that point to truly breakthrough products and services.

With this level of uncertainty and guesswork, is it any wonder that new products and services fail?


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