What is your definition of innovation?

An article in The Wall Street Journal about food companies innovating to raise prices features this definition of innovation from Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen:

“Creating something I didn’t know I needed is innovation.”

We tell new product development leaders all the time that generating innovative ideas isn’t in any customer’s job description.

It’s an organization’s responsibility to identify what’s next to deliver new value and grow sales. You may get lucky. A particularly engaged customer could suggest a winning idea. Yet, customers probably aren’t thinking much about using your product, let alone ways to improve it.

4 Strategies this Definition of Innovation Suggests

This definition of innovation suggests an important question: If innovative new products and services must surprise customers with what they didn’t expect, how can you develop these ideas?

Here are four paths you can use to develop innovative product ideas:

1. Analyze, Analyze, Analyze

Aggressively explore and analyze actual customer behavior data in your internal systems (and relevant external sources):

  • What product groupings do customers already purchase, and what are natural (or unexpected) next things to offer them?
  • What situations seem to be causing long-term customers to leave?
  • Where are new customers stopping and not going deeper into your product offerings?
  • Why are they demonstrating the behaviors you identify? What can you do to offer innovative new things to them?

By interpreting data related to these questions, you create a strong platform for imagining new products. Looking at actual customer behaviors should suggest new opportunities and/or missing components in your product offerings.

2. Listen and Observe Between the Lines

We use early-stage innovation research to ask questions that can help identify product innovations. Instead of asking customers what products they want, we ask questions about their situations:

  • Can you describe the challenges you are having in doing what you want to do?
  • What are your unrealized aspirations (for yourself and/or for your business)?
  • What are the most frustrating aspects of using our product (or those of competitors)?

These types of questions aren’t asking customers to provide any solutions. Instead, they provide a way for customers to give voice to the goals they have and the challenges they face. With strong insights from these questions, your team can work to figure out innovative ways to address their concerns and aspirations.

Alternatively, you can spend more time with your customers to see firsthand what their challenges and missed opportunities are. You will observe things in the normal course of their activities that spark ideas for you to solve.

3. Discover What Lead Users Are Doing Now

Executives (and most everyone else) are better at describing what’s happening right now than predicting the future. You can use this to your advantage to jump start innovative ideas for your broader market. Identify current customers who are the most advanced in using your product or others like it. Think about:

  • Who is pushing the product to the extremes?
  • Who is constantly asking for more because their needs demand it?
  • Which customers seem to be months or years ahead of  most other ones?

You can reach out and learn more about this group’s current activities. Their views on today will provide advance insights into the rest of the market’s future needs.

4. Excel at Rapid Development

Another way to stay ahead of the market?

Develop an incredible ability to efficiently and inexpensively imagine, prototype, and develop new products at a rapid pace. Innovation is largely a numbers game. The more possibilities you can test and launch that aren’t copy-cat products, the greater the likelihood you will introduce successful, innovative products that surprise the market.

How might this definition of innovation shape your strategy?

You have multiple ways to imagine product offerings before the market knows it needs them. Pick one or two that fit your organization’s assets and let you get in front of trends and market expectations easily. – Mike Brown

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