Never bring a knife to a gun fight
Arming innovation teams in the digital economy.
Odds are, even if you’ve never watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, you’ve witnessed the scene where Indiana Jones is confronted by a swordsman in Cairo. As the assassin unsheathes his oversized scimitar, he lets out a laugh and twirls his weapon to highlight his skills with the blade. Unfortunately for the rambunctious swordsman, Indiana Jones simply pulls out his gun, points, and shoots him dead.
The moral of the story? Never bring a knife to a gunfight.
It’s a moral that is incredibly relevant to the current state of innovation in corporate America. After all, most organizations are not properly arming their insight and innovation teams to fight for people’s love and attention — which is exactly why many new products are being quickly shot down by consumers.
It’s a surprising oversight. Especially when many of the most reputed CEOs have identified innovation as being vital to protecting market share. How else can you fight newer, smaller, nimbler companies moving in on your turf? Over the next decade, the success or failure of many Fortune 500 companies will be directly tied to how well they can innovate compared to their competition, big or small.
Naturally, corporations have heavily invested in innovation over the past few years. The money has gone towards building teams specifically tasked with reshaping the roles and responsibilities of existing employees and hiring new people to drive “out-of-the-box” thinking.
There are two typical organizational approaches:
The company develops a team led by design thinkers tasked to explore new and emerging trends in consumer culture, and help the organization prepare for the next big shift.
The company adds new responsibilities to the research and analytics teams to look at existing product lines and identify opportunities to unearth and service the unmet needs of consumers.
Sadly, this is often where the solutions end, and many problems begin. Because apart from restructuring teams or hiring people with a very specific skill set, most organizations are not investing in the tools needed to better guarantee success. New groups are formed with new approaches to information sharing and cultural integration — but innovation teams are stuck using old tools and old methodologies that are simply not capable of providing the accuracy, efficiency or detail needed to innovate in a digital economy.
Secondly, there is a surprising lack of conversation and discussion around this very topic in the marketplace. Perform a quick search for the term innovation online and you will be flooded with article after article, all focusing on how company culture is the key to successful innovation. But, if all innovation required was a flat structure, a creative culture, and near limitless budget, arguably the most brilliant company in the world, Google, would not have failed at some of their most public innovation experiments. Google+, Wave, Lively, Answers, Dodgeball, Jaiku, Buzz and much more had the people, the flexibility and the investment to thrive. Yet, it would seem they were still missing some vital ingredients.
To be clear, the purpose of this white paper is not to discount the role that both organizational culture and corporate structure play in enabling a company to adopt more agile thinking. But the challenge that we are proposing is that it is certainly not enough.
The most talented, integrated and open-minded company (and its innovators) can’t be expected to succeed if they do not have access to the tools and resources needed to properly identify an idea or opportunity.
Success is directly linked to how well an innovation team can determine, early on, whether an idea is just rationally relevant to the market, or whether it is an emotionally impactful innovation that will solve consumers’ deep seeded, unmet needs.
This is the key to determining market viability and the potential impact of a new product.
In the spirit of change, we are pleased to present the 3 “Innovations for Innovators” that every company or organization needs to consider or implement if they want to assure they are arming their innovation teams with the right insights.
1. STOP ASKING PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT. THEY CAN’T TELL YOU.
“I think Henry Ford once said, If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!' People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” - Steve Jobs
Today, every innovation team is tasked to read things that are not yet on the page. And many innovation teams have been tasked with turning their company into the “Apple” of their category. Which begs an important question — was Jobs right to question the validity of market research? The answer is yes, and no.
Jobs was right to question research that requires a consumer to tell you what they want, because, as he rightly states, consumers are not capable of articulating their true unmet needs, emotional triggers or motivations. In fact, the moment you interrupt and ask for an opinion, a respondent cannot help but internalize the question and rationalize their response. That’s why a consumer will tell you they are very, very concerned about eating healthy in the focus group, but stop by McDonald’s for two Big Macs on the drive home. What a consumer says, is often not what they truly believe. It’s not that they want to lie to you. In some instances, they are simply lying to themselves. Which is why it is imperative that innovation teams stop asking people what they want.
Where the Jobs quote needs clarification, is in its complete dismissal of market research in its entirety. Because unbiased, entirely observational market research is possible, all thanks to the vast amount that consumers share online and via social media. We are not talking about sentiment analysis. Nor are we referencing quantitative behavioral science that merely identifies patterns to predict future behavior. We are talking about leveraging the art and science of ethnographic research, and porting it online to study larger populations, as they go about their lives. With the right skills, a social scientist can immerse themselves into online communities, and uncover unspoken motivations that a consumer can’t articulate or that they are simply unaware of. With these unspoken motivations, you can see the dominant beliefs and values that connect different types of consumers, so you can truly understand both the rational requirements and the unmet emotional needs of your potential consumer.
Which means that for the first time, a team tasked with innovation can breathe a sigh of relief as it no longer has to pull ideas out of thin air and hope that they yield results. Instead, it simply has to find practical and plausible solutions for the ideas that now come from consumers themselves in the form of unmet emotional needs.
The sad truth is that Jobs died before we truly had the ability to study and examine consumers in an unobtrusive manner. And while many of us may believe that Jobs didn’t need any research because he was intuitively brilliant, most people in innovation roles aren’t. Which means having access to this type of research can play a pivotal role in helping innovators in organizations determine the potential success of a new product or service.
Yet, the majority of companies continue to rely on asking consumers whether they’d use/buy their new innovations. Which may explain why so many companies are building faster horses, instead of iPhones.
2. RIDE THE WAVE. DON’T SWIM AGAINST THE CURRENT.
Think of consumer culture as a large beach filled with millions of people. Unfortunately, innovation teams are over a mile out, treading water in a tumultuous ocean. There are enormous waves, enveloping all the new products and powerful undertows pulling new ideas out to sea. Yet despite these treacherous conditions, it is the innovation team’s responsibility to get new products to shore.
For many, it can be pretty scary out there. But it doesn’t have to be. There are tools that can help innovation teams anticipate the direction of the current and indicators that can reveal when the next big wave is coming. There are even techniques to uncovering consumers who will help you get to shore. Yet, despite these options, many companies are still reliant on antiquated approaches that are pointing their innovation teams in the wrong direction. Not only do they end up swimming against the current. The can end up so far out to sea, land and the consumers fall completely out of view.
Instead, organizations need to invest early in understanding the marketplace, by forensically deconstructing the beliefs and values of consumers. This doesn’t just help an innovation team better understand how we can invent, develop and position new products and services that will satisfy their unmet needs — it can reveal which portion of the population is driving changes in that category. It can reveal shortcuts on how you can create, tailor and seed a product into consumer culture by serving it up to the most important people in the marketplace. Understanding existing and upcoming trends in a category is key to not only building a better product — but it can reveal the millions and millions of consumers that will advocate for the innovation you are developing — because it naturally aligns with who and what they are, as people.
Research needs to function like a GPS that helps you identify surfers that are riding trends, so you can take a direct route to your desired consumers. By understanding who is riding the waves, and what is important to them, you can intercept them, connect with them, and convince them to pull your product up on their surfboard and carry it to shore. Plus, when they get there, they’ll even share it with the masses because it has been tailored to align with their values. Organizations need to give their innovation teams the tools to understand trends and identify the most influential groups of consumers to better guarantee success. It is the only way to guarantee that new products and services don’t end up stranded in a sea of parity and mediocrity.
3. BE EMPATHETIC TO CONSUMERS
There is a saying — you come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly. Organizations want consumers to love them. But they tend to look at people as numbers. They want metrics that can be perfectly explained, instead of understanding that the quirks, flaws, and oddities that make a group of people special and unique are what can unlock their most powerful motivations. Innovation teams that don’t have the tools to see imperfect people perfectly, create imperfect products for the market. And those products often fail.
What organizations need to remember, is that while we have more than 2.5 billion gigabytes of data to tell us where, when and what a consumer is doing, big data rarely can truly answer the elusive question… ‘why?’ In order to truly understand the ‘why’, you need to go beyond a consumer’s age, geographical location, or socioeconomic status. You need to go beyond their ‘likes’ or hobbies or jobs. You need to get to what they believe. These beliefs are at the very core of who and what these people are. They reveal hopes, dreams, fears and weaknesses. They uncover intimate details that can help an entire organization empathize with an important consumer group.
And empathy is vital if you want to truly connect with consumers.
Take this example. Pretend you are a mid-tier retailer. Now pretend you need to innovate to reach a group of middle-class women from suburban areas who tend to shop at outlet malls and over-index in the amount of debt they carry.
Did you judge her?
Now try this. Pretend you are a mid-tier retailer and that you need to innovate to reach a group of women, who are struggling with their identity because the ‘American Dream’ says that they’re not a success unless they are always progressing in life. They don’t have the job they want. Or the home they want. In fact, they are struggling to make ends meet. It’s not all their fault. The economy is struggling. But they don’t want people to think that their life has stagnated. That’s why they strategically use sales/discounts and shop at outlets to find ‘corner stone’ fashion purchases that will help them appear more affluent than they are. Not because they’re cheap. Not because they’re crass or are posers. But because the social pressure of progress is driving them to game the system to create the illusion, that they are richer than they truly are.
This is a story that represents almost 40% of Americans today. Understanding it can help an innovation team serve up solutions that will truly fill the unmet needs of consumers because it delivers a more relatable, more powerful understanding of what the consumer’s life is like, based on empathy. It is still based on studying thousands, and thousands of people to assure accuracy and consistency. But it goes beyond the rational ‘what’ to get to the emotional ‘why’.
The why is everything.
Because if you want your consumers to love you, you have to empathize with them. If you want to empathize with them, you need to understand them, their emotional flaws and all. It’s the key to getting to insights that can change the way an entire organization looks at their consumer and the role a brand, a company or a product can play in a person’s life.
FROM INCEPTION TO EXECUTION
With these three simple philosophical guideposts, a company that truly wants to innovate can start to rethink the weapons they are placing in the holster of insight and innovation teams.
But the fun doesn’t stop there.
Often, once a new product is developed, tested and ready for market, it is handed to a brand team without an actionable understanding of what is driving the consumer’s unmet needs. Even in situations where an innovation team may have used or leveraged a deeply emotional benefit for a new product, many organizations fall into a proverbial game of ‘broken telephone’ and the insight mutates or is lost as a launch strategy is formed and implemented. The result? The consumer’s first introduction to that product is a watered-down rational benefit that does not truly separate a product in a category. This can lead to an amazing product failing to connect with consumers because it merely talks about what it can do versus why it is relevant to you and how it aligns with the beliefs and values that define who you are, as a person.
The three “Innovations for Innovators” that we have listed above not only arm insight teams — they can be used to help assure that the narrative around a project remains consistent. With a detailed understanding of consumer beliefs, a GPS on who will drive trends in the market and where to find them, as well as the ability to see your consumer through empathetic eyes, everyone in an organization can protect a valuable insight — all because it is clear, concise, and relatable.
As we look to the future, and the digital economy continues to drive faster deadlines, more personalization and an overwhelming amount of content to compete with, innovation teams need as much help as possible to create products and programs that will stand out. Insights and ideas are the most powerful weapons the Fortune 500 will have in their arsenal. So make sure you don’t get caught bringing a knife to a gun a fight.