Volume 9, 
May, 2011


Taking the Prize for Invention
What gets in the way of finding out what ails your customers?


Sheila Mello

A friend's seventh-grade son (let's call him Rob) was stumped for weeks by his school's annual "Invention Fair." The fair organizers did a great job of attempting to foster creativity among the young participants, offering a one-page handout that advised interviewing family members and friends about problems they encounter in everyday life, then brainstorming possible solutions and sketching prototypes.

Rob spent weeks complaining that he couldn't think of anything to invent. He was reluctant to ask people about the challenges they face because he didn't see how this would help him come up with an idea. This got me thinking about why some adults--even those employed in R&D, product management, or marketing--share Rob's resistance to customer research. Here are some possible reasons.

Perceived urgency. Consider the pressure on a product development team to get a new product out the door. It's never easy to be creative under pressure, as any middle-school student could tell you. Designing, setting up, and conducting in-depth interviews with customers and prospects seems like a waste of time that won't get you any closer to your goal. The temptation is enormous to simply plow ahead with whatever information is at hand, whether it's from conversations with a few lead customers, suggestions from the company's advisory board, complaints from existing customers, or an analysis of the purported weaknesses of the competition's latest offering.

No reward for research. While there is tremendous push within organizations to innovate—and indeed our entire culture champions discovery and invention—our reward systems often emphasize the end result rather than the process of gathering the data that leads to the end result. Middle-school students are rewarded for having something display at the fair, not for the quality and depth of the questions that led to the invention; a design team is rewarded for getting the prototype done, not for reporting to management that the research showed customers don't want the prototype. Many companies pay lip service to customer research but don't structure the organization in a way that rewards employees using customer value to drive innovation.

Misunderstanding risk. Companies are quite willing to invest large sums of money in the technical work behind product development (for example, hiring experts or acquiring new technology). But they often are not willing to spend large sums of money (although a small percentage of the R&D budget for the project) to do customer research because that investment feels like a risk. What if we do a lot of research into a potential new product and ultimately don't proceed with it? Well, isn't it better to kill the project early rather than after you've invested most of the development budget in an offering has missed its mark?

Failing to distinguish between "innovation" and "invention." It's often said that "innovation is invention with a purpose." As we posit in our book, Value Innovation Portfolio Management, what matters in the corporate world is providing value to the customer. No matter how cool the product (invention) may be, if it doesn't offer value, it doesn't belong in the portfolio. The role of research as it relates to innovation is to provide a fertile but defined ground in which creativity can bloom. While timid or rigid organizations are often unable to see innovations that are essentially in front of the corporate nose, wild creativity without parameters leads to innovations with no market relevance. Ideally, you should set the creative forces loose after identifying a customer problem, validating that the problem is relevant, and confirming that its solution will be valuable. Innovation for the sake of innovation only rarely leads to profitable new products.

Rob eventually did come up with an idea for his project.* If the stakes at your company are a little higher than getting a grade, take a look at whether you, like Rob, are blowing right past one of the most critical first steps in the innovation process.

Click here to read a sample chapter from Value Innovation Portfolio Management (PDF file).

*In case you are curious, it was a simple idea: a coffee cup with a magnetically attached coaster, so you could set your cup down anywhere without having to hunt for or remember to bring along a coaster. For a last-minute idea, it wasn't bad, and it actually was based on a problem rooted in his mother's desire to protect the furniture--though this came about completely by accident, and not through a structured research process.

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