Get out of your ivory tower and innovate

There is an underlying theme of “If I build it they will come” as it relates to Product Innovation. This mythical idea can be portrayed on the big screen, but has no place in your business. This is called the Ivory Tower syndrome. Fortunately, there is a cure to this syndrome and it starts with your customers.

Your customers are the key to breakout innovation

Many years ago, I took on Product Development responsibility for a $1 billion business unit, and quickly learned the division had no product roadmap.  “We used to do stuff like that”, I heard at my first meeting with nervous chuckles.  This partially explained their dismal performance.  Coming from a sales leadership role, I decided to take their products on the road to acquire the Voice of the Customer (VOC).  What I discovered was quite intriguing.  The customers were not interested in 100% of the products we had in development.  All of the products were developed in a vacuum with no input from the customer.  Somebody thought it was a good idea and convinced the team to invest.

So, here I was with no product pipeline and no visibility into what was needed.  Yikes!  I researched where the total spend for the industry was heading, looking for inflection points in the industry, which most would agree might bring opportunity.  But the question was where to find it?

Innovation comes from finding solutions

Opportunity always started with their pain.  What is the biggest challenge they are facing today or recognize as a potential issue in the future?  I have found that many companies recognize the problem, but finding the solution is a completely different discussion.  When you break down the problem, you must get to the root cause, or the for those math people, the least common denominator.  When you can clearly define the actual root of the problem that is common across the industry, solve for that first.

When I uncovered the pain points, I was eager to go back and solve these problems.  I put together a product roadmap that solved one problem at a time with an end goal of a complete solution.  We created product concepts and target specifications with features and benefits and I hit the road again to validate the VOC.

Dig deep to find the gold

To my surprise I found that my new products were wrong 100% of the time.  The good news was they were not grossly wrong.  Leaning on my sales experience, I was able to capture the features the customers liked and disliked.  This is where I found the gold!  If they liked a feature, I wanted to know why.  Typically, I would get a surface level answer like, “This is really robust.” By asking why this was important, I found the real benefit.  “If this breaks, it would cost us $500 to replace it in the field and this is the number one area that typically breaks”.  Wow!  That was important.  When I dug into a feature they didn’t like, they would provide color about their specific application or how the product would be used.  Solving these problems provided clear differentiation and now I could communicate it forward to the next customer.  The point is, engage as many customers as necessary until you identify a pattern of like requirements.

I’ve had the privilege of working across all types of industries who deliver products or services, for profit or non-profit.  This basic product development process has provided exponential new growth for every company to date.   So, if you get out of the Ivory Tower and get your customers involved in your development process, you will significantly improve your chances for break-out innovation.

Category: Innovation

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About the Author: dale robinette

Dale Robinette is a globally recognized business advisor with a proven track record transforming businesses ranging from small start-ups to large Fortune 100 companies. He has held a wide variety of leadership positions including Sales, Prod…

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