Innovators are producers of insight, not just consumers
Once you are finished with the article, your next response will be, so that's all there is? Beer companies should find out what beer drinkers want by going into bars? Ostomy appliance manufacturers should examine the ways their products are used and the different body types and contours of the various users. Isn't that OBVIOUS? Well, yes, much of this research and insight is obvious in hindsight, just sitting there waiting to be observed. But you've got to be a capable observer to notice. And to notice, you've got to become a producer, not simply a consumer, of insight.
Beware of any paragraph that begins: the innovation challenge many large companies today is... Because there isn't one problem or challenge doing innovation well, there are many. Innovation is unusual, different from the status quo. It requires more risk taking and introduces new methods and tools. Most innovation won't "pay off" for years, so it frustrates short term thinking. But you know all that already, right? Here another challenge for innovation: most of us have become consumers of information rather than producers. Rather than go and find out what's going on with our customers, rather than creating or discovering new insights, we've become content to be consumers of what ever information others care to share or sell to us.
What others share
If I have unique insights that are valuable and can help me create meaningful, differentiated products and services, why would I share that information with anyone else? I'll keep that information as close to the chest as possible, hoping it will pay off for years to come. When we purchase market research from other firms, when we become consumers of market insights and consumer research rather than producers of that information, we should expect to receive watered-down, second-hand insights and information. After all, the market research people want to sell that information to many people, and the broader the audience the less distinctive the information needs to be. Secondly, we we become consumers we need to be aware of the inherent biases or perspectives of the people gathering and assessing information for us. Every observer and reporter has unintentional or inherent bias. We need to understand that bias and adjust for it, or simply overcome it by doing our own research.
I typically ask in my customer insight workshops how many of my attendees have participated in some form of ethnography. Few hands ever go up; after all it's still a new science. But I'll take it further. How many have sat in their retail spaces, their bank branches or where ever their products are used by their customers and simply watched to learn how their products are used, and what joy or frustration their products create? When you get out from behind the desk and get out in front of customers using your products, you become a producer of market insight, more simpatico with the thinking of customers. You'll exercise your empathy muscles to deeply understand why people act the way they do. And you'll have much better insight into the actual needs of customers, and have a much greater chance of acting on that insight.
Edison, Jobs and others
And, yes, there are the fortunate few who had such incredible insight that they didn't have to go to customers. They could assert what customers wanted. Edison and Jobs are two examples, but I wouldn't go around claiming that I had the same insights as they did. Most innovators need to get out from behind their desks, out of the status meetings and in front of customers using your product, channels moving your product or other stakeholders who influence how your product is sold or used. Only then will you have the real insights you need, only then will you understand the depth and validity of the needs that are expressed.
Become a producer of insight
To become more successful at generating interesting and valuable new products and services that exceed customer expectations, we have to start with the unmet needs. When we talk about discovering needs, we have several choices in how we identify and understand those needs. Innovators can assert they understand the needs of customers because they themselves are consumers of the product. Innovators can create technologies and push them to consumers, hoping to convince consumers they need the products and services. Innovators can purchase market research and other customer insights from third parties and attempt to interpret the research in their product context. Or, innovation teams can become producers of insight, going out to interact with their customers and consumers to gain first hand experience identifying and understanding unmet and unarticulated needs. I'll leave it to your judgement to decide which works best in your setting, but our experience demonstrates the power of first hand observation, interpretation and empathy.