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Try this Customer Innovation technique

I promise in my workshops that I can teach people how to innovate. Really? Is this possible or is this simply a set of techniques that create some different results, but leave your mindset in the same position it was before?

This article does not turn you into an innovator– that can be done, but it takes a bit longer. It does however give you a technique that can be put into practice immediately. The secret to success with this technique is “intentionality”. The more you practice it – and you can do it in your head anywhere – the more likely you will start to use it unconsciously which is the first big step to thinking differently.

But first, a confession. I was not born an innovator. In fact, completely the opposite. I am naturally “left brained” and jealous as hell of those geniuses who think differently from the rest of us. I wanted that creative ability but assumed – wrongly as it turned out – that innovation is the domain of those gifted few.

Two Second Introduction to Divergent vs Convergent thinking

This is a simple codification of a thinking pattern. Most innovators naturally think “divergently” whereas most logical thinkers are “convergent”. Much of our education encourages convergent thinking and, as we repeat this pattern again and again in our formative years it becomes the natural way to process information and therefore reach an answer. Convergent thinking is to take information at your immediate disposal and then converge to an insight or answer. Divergent thinkers also converge – they have to – but before they do they actively diverge. The best innovators naturally harness different thinking patterns to diverge and that is where the creative ideas that nobody else considers come from.

 Three types of innovator

  1. Those looking at an opportunity who spot a completely different application. This is the accidental innovator
  2. The innovator who spots the innovation opportunity before identifying the solution
  3. The innovator who thinks of an innovation idea then goes to seek a market for the idea

I am not going to cover the third category as the idea creation techniques out there are quite commonly used. The first two categories are more interesting.

Accidental Innovation

Some of the greatest innovations of all time emerged by complete chance. One example, in the mid-1940s Percy Spencer was examining magnetrons which at the time were being used to generate microwave radio signals as the core mechanism of the radar. Percy was standing in front of an active radar set he noticed a strange warm moving sensation at the top of his leg.  This warm and moving feeling turned out to be the candy bar melting in his pocket. Percy Spencer was not the first person to observe the phenomenon, but he was the first to experiment with it and spot the connection with heating food and the creation of the device we now know as the microwave oven.

My favourite story was the pill that was originally tested in a Welsh hamlet by the scientists at Pfizer as a treatment for angina. It actually was not very good, but some customers could not get enough of it and continued to request more. “That little lift” (the author understands allegedly) meant the blue pill we know as Viagra is now a top 5 and multi-billion dollar revenue machine for Pfizer and apparently the fastest selling drug of all time.

There are plenty of other examples but almost always it required an almost accidental series of events to occur before opportunity was spotted.

Spotting the Innovation Opportunity

Ultimately any innovation that is going to have commercial impact needs customer value. The difficulty is not spotting the solution once the idea is identified. Our natural problem-solving thinking patterns are very good at doing that. The difficulty is spotting the innovation opportunity in the first place. The technique I am going to show you is a very simple – in fact remarkably simple. If it is practiced, then new business opportunities can be identified all the time.

Look at the following two scenarios:

  1. You have made a mug of coffee and you have placed it undrunk on the table.
  2. You have purchased a cup of coffee as a take out from a local coffee shop for your partner and 2 children. You take the coffee back to the car before you start to drink it.

How are you going to identify an opportunity to innovate? Billions of people are drinking coffee in one or both of these scenarios every day. Surely the opportunity to innovate in such an everyday common place process is already gone? Right?

Actually, WRONG.

The process of understanding a customer’s opportunity or problem space better than they understand it themselves is the key. People can quite happily live with all sorts of situations that compromise their lifestyle without realising that new opportunity is sitting right under their nose.

Let me demonstrate a technique to identify innovation opportunity using Scenario 2.

Step 1

Identify and write down each micro moment of truth or interaction as you go through the process of drinking the take-out coffee. For example, in scenario 2 this might look like this:

 Step 2

For each micro Moment of Truth document the issues that might occur. Step into the journey map as if you are going through the process yourself. Stop at each step in the micro journey and brainstorm the possible issues that arise. Play an extremely demanding customer here – the real world has plenty.

It does not take very long before a few issues present themselves:

  • The temperature of the drink
  • The potential to spill
  • Or both

Do you remember the case of 79-year-old Stella Liebeck in 1992? She bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled hot coffee on her lap. She sued McDonald’s on the basis the coffee was dangerously hot and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered. This was later reduced on appeal.  McDonalds reduced the temperature of the coffee as a result and ensured the problem never happened again but millions of consumers were left with a hot drink which although safe was not really hot enough.

What do you do?

Step 3 – Brainstorm possible solutions to the issues around the Moments of Truth

Don’t think for a second that innovation is alive and well. According to Starbucks 66 billion cups of coffee are drunk every single year, 75% of these in the home. Despite that there has been precious little innovation in this area. What ideas can you think of. When the Moment of Truth Opportunity presents itself the teams in my workshops usually can think of new ideas in under 30 minutes. For example:

  • A colour changing lid with temperature is often identified. This was first innovated by Smart Lid Systems

  • Others have pointed out that the process of building potentially billions of these heat sensitive lids could be expensive and the plastic strip could be placed on top of the cardboard cup but in much smaller amounts.
  • A cost-effective solution that prevents spillage could be an all cardboard cup such as the Compleat coffee cup shown below.

Now how about a cup that integrates a temperature strip and is easily fold-able. I admit this is not exactly an earth-shattering innovation but it does solve two of the biggest problems customers face when drinking take away coffee and is far more cost-effective than the traditional cup plus separate lid. Has anybody done it? No

Is there a market? Don’t know. Possibly over time, the large fast food chains would use this.

What has driven those ideas? Simply an understanding of the issues encountered in a customer journey which are missed (because of insufficient detail) or an acceptance that things have always been that way.

Charles Bennett

Founder & CEO. Charles is an acknowledged leader in customer-driven performance change using both best practice and emerging next practice perspectives. He leads, mentors and coaches in both strategic and operational initiatives. A strong believer is the potential for "supercompany performance" he innovates using next practice thinking and methods to enhance the business. He researches heavily to retain his reputation as a thought leader, which he has applied across 40 countries, multiple sectors and companies such as Citibank, Nielsen, Microsoft, Vodafone, Tracker and governments in Middle East and Asia. Contributes to business journals and often invited as a speaker or chairman to events all over the world.