Innovation is NOT about Ideas!

broken lightbulb

Innovation is not about having an idea.

Yes, you read that correctly – innovation is NOT about having ideas.

This is one of the most common mistakes people make when they claim they can’t innovate. So you don‘t have any ideas – actually, that’s great news!

A big mistake people make when they innovate is to start with an idea.

Innovation is about knowing your customers, their problems and their pain points.

In Steven Johnson’s amazing TED Talk (S Johnson Ted Talk) about where good ideas come from, he points out that although people tend to claim a ‘light bulb moment’, in truth this is usually something that has been simmering in the background for some time while they sub-consciously go through an innovation checklist on the idea.

You can bet that somewhere in the background the idea started because they or people they were observing had a problem they wanted to solve. They did NOT wake up morning with a fresh new idea that popped out of thin air. Yes, this sort of innovation does happen and, on rare but highly publicised occasions, results in a game-changing innovation. But the vast majority of successful business innovation comes about from following some challenging but practical steps, which start from the customer perspective.

Until you have a good understanding of what problems your customer has that needs to be solved, you are best off avoiding any ideas about what your product might be as, chances are, you’ll define a customer problem that fits your product but which isn’t actually what they want solved.

Your customers are outcome-driven. Find out what the outcome is and what barriers and pains are in their way and you’ll have a sweet spot for innovation.

Why does my customer need my product or service?

The first step is finding out precisely why your customers use your products. This is often formulated as ‘What problem does the customer have?’. The answer may not be as obvious as you think and even your customers may not be able to articulate it clearly. The classic story about this was when Henry Ford said that if he had asked his customers what they want, they would have said a faster horse. In fact what they wanted was to get from A to B faster. (For the fact nerds amongst us, he never actually said that – but he definitely should have!)

Start by observing your customer do what they do

You need to come up with different ways of finding out what their needs are. The best innovators swear by observation – watch your customers doing the tasks that require your product and question them as they carry it out.

Talk round the problem not about it

Start with why they use the product but don’t limit yourself to that. Ask what worries or frustrates them in their business, what other products they use, what churn do they have in staffing – whatever seems to flow naturally from the task they are carrying out. What you are after is insights into the story around their use of the product not facts about how they use it.


Of course, this is not always an option. Perhaps you have no customers yet or they may be they are distributed worldwide. There are plenty of other techniques for researching your customer problems. However, since they are not always reliable, I would always triangulate to test their validity. Use three quite different techniques and try to identify the consistent strands.

Ask the experts

Talk to industry insiders – if not directly, via trade magazines, web searches on key words, or LinkedIn –a great way of connecting with experts. Ask your customer service, sales and other front line people what customers are talking about, what complaints they have, who hasn’t bought their product and why not.

Now you can have some ideas!

One final thing – once you have identified some of your customers problems, don’t then rush out and try to solve every small thing the customers have said they want. If you truly understand what they need, you can come up with a genuinely innovative product rather than a set of add-on features. This is the point where you can crack out the light bulb and start having some great ideas.

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