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We often elevate inventors like Edison, Ford and Musk to almost mythical status, attributing seemingly impossible mental powers to them. We imagine some lone genius churning away in a cluttered garage, conjuring up the next big thing.
In reality, most groundbreaking changes don’t come from inventing something out of thin air; they emerge from optimizing, scaling and rethinking what’s already out there. Case in point: Steve Jobs didn’t invent the mobile phone or the computer, but he innovated and revolutionized how we interact with these devices.
When asked about his approach to innovation, Jobs had a simple answer: “Start with the customer experience and work backward from there.” He wasn’t trying to push fancy new technology down the market’s throat; he focused on what was missing in the user experience and worked backward from there.
Emulating nature’s adaptability in business
In nature, adaptation is the name of the game. Look at the finches in the Galápagos Islands: Over time, they adapted their beaks to suit their food sources better. The beaks didn’t change overnight; they evolved incrementally to serve the finches’ needs better. Similarly, in the business world, the best innovations often come from small, targeted adjustments, not massive overhauls.
Southwest Airlines didn’t invent flying, nor did they invent the low-cost airline model. They did innovate the airline industry by focusing on simplicity and efficiency, making air travel accessible to the masses. They disrupted the industry not by creating something new but by doing something existing — far better.
The concept of lodging isn’t new, but Airbnb revolutionized it by allowing everyday homeowners to turn residences into short-term rentals. They filled a gap by providing more lodging options in locations that traditional hotels didn’t serve.
So, how do you innovate? What’s your formula? Look to the North Star: Your customer
Making your customer the North Star of your business strategy makes you far more likely to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace. Innovation isn’t just a one-time, instantaneous thing; it’s an ongoing process that continually aligns your business with your customers’ evolving needs and wants.
Steve Jobs hit the nail on the head when he said, “Start with the customer experience and work backward from there.” Why? Because if you’re not laser-focused on what your customers truly need, you’re not just missing an opportunity — you’re risking your business.
But it’s not a time to hit the panic button; it’s a wake-up call. This is your chance to pivot and take your business from overlooked to overbooked. The name of the game is customer-centric innovation. Let’s dig into the nitty-gritty strategies that can transform your customer experience from ‘meh’ to ‘marvelous.’
Uncommon tactics for true innovation
Tap Into Unconventional Feedback Channels
- Ethnographic Studies: Send a team to observe how your product or service is used in real-world conditions. Take note of pain points that may not be explicitly stated in other customer reviews.
- Customer Diaries: Ask a sample of customers to maintain a diary focused on your product or service, detailing their daily experiences and frustrations.
- NPS+: Beyond the regular Net Promoter Score surveys, ask those who gave you low scores to join a quick chat to elaborate on their issues.
Dig Deeper Into Analysis
- Sentiment Analysis on User Reviews: Use AI tools to scan reviews for emotional tone. It gives you more context than just “positive” or “negative.”
- Predictive Analytics: Use machine learning to predict customer behavior based on their interactions with your product. This can help you innovate proactively rather than reactively.
- Eye-Tracking Studies: If you’re in the digital space, eye-tracking can help you understand what grabs attention on your website or app and why.
- Customer Co-Creation: Invite customers to participate in ideation or co-design sessions. Offer generous incentives for their participation. Their insights could lead you to innovate in ways you hadn’t considered because you’re looking at your business from your customers’ perspective.
- Hackathons: This deserves an explanation. A hackathon is essentially an intense brainstorming event where developers, designers, and other stakeholders come together to solve specific problems or build something new quickly — often within 24 to 48 hours. Here, “hack” means exploratory programming, not illegal activities. It’s a fantastic environment for creativity and innovation, as people often step out of their usual roles and collaborate in ways they wouldn’t in a typical workday.
- Shadow Boards: Create a board of younger employees or those lower in the hierarchy but close to everyday problems. Ask for their insights into gaps, issues and overlooked opportunities. They might see things that C-level execs might overlook.
Agile and Beyond
- Objectives and Key Results (OKRs): If you’re looking to stir the innovation pot, OKRs can serve as your roadmap and measuring stick. They ensure everyone is purposefully aligned but free in approach, which is a sweet spot for breakthrough thinking. This approach ensures everyone is working toward the same objectives, fostering a culture of accountability and alignment. Use this framework to keep teams aligned and focused on innovation-driven goals.
- Skunk Works Team: When it comes to fueling innovation, you’ve got to think about building a Skunk Works Team. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill project group; it’s a hand-picked, cross-functional dream team laser-focused on shaking things up. Have a dedicated, cross-functional team focused entirely on innovation, operating with different rules than the rest of the organization to expedite creativity.
By implementing these unconventional strategies, you’re going beyond the obvious to make your business an innovation powerhouse. Sure, you still need to listen, identify gaps and act. But these advanced tactics put a spin on the how, making the whole process far more robust and effective.
Innovation isn’t just about making something new; it’s about improving something. Whether tweaking your service offering, creating a more user-friendly product, or simply finding a new way to meet customer needs, it’s all about filling those gaps. You don’t have to be an Edison or a Ford to be an innovator. You just need a keen eye, an open ear, and the courage to take risks. Innovation isn’t about inventing the wheel; it’s about reimagining how it can roll more efficiently and improve lives.