Want To Innovate? Stop Focusing On Customer Problems

By Anand Tamboli

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Okay, let us start with the basic and yet core question: What is a problem? Sounds trivial, but it is more than a trick question. A quick Google search might tell you that a problem is “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.”

So, let us take an example to dig down further. Let us talk about Jimmy, our customer. Jimmy is an art lover and recently purchased artwork in an auction last week. Now he wants to install it on the wall of his living room. But Jimmy does not have all the necessary tools to do that. He does not have a hammer, nails, or drill-machine, etc. In this scenario, Jimmy wanting to install an artwork in his living room is not a problem. His inability to do that due to lack of resources and tools, on the other hand, can be construed as a problem.

Now, if you were to sell him a solution to his problem, it is likely that you will offer him a good hammer or a drill machine, or you may try to sell him a handyman service. The point is, if you know what customers’ problems are, you can sell them your products or services. That is what knowing the customer’s problem does – it enables you to sell them what you already have. And there are several well-established and proven ways to find more about customer problems.

But innovation is less about selling and more about solving. And that is why the approach described above is poorly suited for innovation. When you are innovating, you do not want to be blinded by customer’s problems. You want something better and bigger that can give you solid leverage to innovate better and use that innovation to get to or maintain your market-leading position.

Innovation is less about selling and more about solving.

What if you go a few steps further, conduct a deep survey, or ask questions differently? You will highly likely uncover root causes and true intent or motive of doing something in the first place. In Jimmy’s case, instead of asking, “What are you lacking or struggling with?” you may want to ask, “What are you trying to do? And why?”

In most cases, customers cannot specify the solution they want. It is unlikely that you will get exact or near-exact specifications of what they need. But one thing customers can do effectively is to tell you what they are trying to do and why. And when you know that you are in a better position to help them. You may know or find a better way for them of doing that thing.

In most cases, customers cannot specify the solution they want.

If you ask Jimmy, “What are you struggling with?” Jimmy may tell you that he does not have the tools to hang a piece of art on the wall. Or he may be a bit more specific and tell you that he does not have the right-sized drill-bit. And knowing that you can sell him a drill machine or a drill bit, do not forget, though, that there will be other drill-machine and drill-bit sellers who will be competing with you for the same.

If you change your question and ask him, “What are you trying to do, Jimmy?” He might say, “I am trying to install this beautiful piece of art in my living room and therefore looking for tools to do that.” Now you have found something better. If you were truly innovative, you might avoid selling him a drill machine or drill bit altogether. You may suggest him using a removable sticker instead and offer him your removable stickers. Where do you think your drill machine competitors will go?

Taking this approach means you not only create a breakthrough product but you also successfully render your competition almost meaningless. It makes your competition work twice as hard to catch up and compete with you.

Transformative innovation can render your competition almost meaningless.
When problems are known, solutions could be many, and the competition can spring up easily. No wonder many businesses these days are trying to map customer behaviour and find out customers’ intent early on.

Of course, you must remember to draw a line where it ends because it is easy to overdo and be nosey. Nonetheless, making sure that you do not fall in love with your hammer or drill machine is the key. That is particularly important.

You may have heard that knowing your ‘why’ in the business is important. Yes, for staying in business longer, it is indeed necessary. But in my view, your customers’ ‘why’ is more important. Because it enables you to do things that benefit them directly and, as a result, it can always ensure that you stay in business longer. If you are trying to innovate and sell a new product or service, it helps make customer behaviour sticky. It puts you in a favourable position and gives you enough material to leave your competition helpless.
When innovating, your customer’s ‘why’ is more important than your ‘why.’

There is a saying in Hindi, “Na rahega bas, na bajegi bansuri.” Meaning if you eliminate the root cause, the problem vanishes. Finding true customer intent and motive behind using the product can help you do that. When you focus on customers’ intent rather than their problems, you can bring in transformative innovation.

Traditionally, most innovations solve problems with previous solutions. Transformative innovation is different. It helps eliminate the root cause of the problem and thus transforms the problem.

It is important to understand that transformative innovation needs a polymathic approach and behaviour. It needs an ability to connect dots and ask the right kind of questions. However, it does not stop there. When you ask the right questions, it helps you form new hypotheses. To get to the bottom of those hypotheses and work on the right one, you must design experiments.

Designing appropriate experiments that are low-risk, quick to implement, and give maximum insights is crucial. When I work with people for innovation, I often see that the ideation process and experimentation falters. And, in most cases, it happens due to a lack of broad expertise and institutional blindness.

Institutional blindness is like the bokeh in photography. Bokeh is an effect of a soft out-of-focus background that you get when shooting a subject with a fast lens shutter at the widest aperture. It keeps the subject in sharp focus but pretty much diffuses the background.

Make no mistake, institutional bokeh is of utmost necessity for fast and efficient operation. However, as far as innovation is concerned, you are better off without it. It is one of the reasons why you need external perspectives to counter that.

Institutional blindness is like the bokeh in photography, necessary for fast and efficient operation but dangerous for innovation.

In addition to different perspectives, you can also be better off by creating conducive team structures and operating models within the organisation. Some teams and departments think about yesterday, that is, analytics, reporting, etc. Some think about today, that is, operations, sales, quality, etc. Some even think about tomorrow, that is, R&D, marketing, strategy, et al. You need one more team that can help you think about the day after tomorrow and innovate for the imminent future.

Transformative innovation can sometimes be complex, but it is highly potent. So, develop this potent skill and do the work that is necessary to get there.

And remember, to innovate, you do not need to focus on customers’ problems. Instead, focus on their intent.


Anand Tamboli is a serial entrepreneur, speaker, award-winning author, and an emerging-technology thought leader

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