Insights That Spark Innovation

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Inventors can sometimes seem obsessed. Bursting with energy and passion for their big ideas, they risk losing focus on the customer at the end of the process. And examples of large-scale, costly misses litter the business literature.

ST. PAUL , Minn. –  The challenge for innovative companies is nurturing inventors’ ingenuity and drive, while channeling their resources toward market needs that are worth solving. According to Dawn Cunningham, leader of 3M’s Global Customer, Consumer and Market Insights team, it’s not always easy to keep the customers’ needs at the center of your innovation. It’s tempting to twist and turn the solution to accommodate your capabilities – especially when you are trying to go fast – instead of being true to the real customer need.

“Every company that focuses on innovation has the scar tissue to prove they don’t always hit the mark.”

As anyone who reads the business press knows, many new products fail, whatever the industry or market, but it’s also clear that the upside of success is dramatic. And that’s what keeps companies innovating and furthering their technological capabilities. Dawn Cunningham also points out that the rise of the internet and growth of e-commerce has created a new world where customers are much more informed and in charge than ever before.

Identify Demand First

This has resulted in a significant shift in world economies – from being supply-driven to demand-driven. “With this new reality, it’s absolutely critical that we put the customer first, so we can identify demand before creating new supply,” she explains.

The goal is to first find the problem – an unfulfilled need – then determine if this is a problem that is worth solving. Only then should companies apply their technology to solving the problem. From this point on, she warns, it is easy to lose sight of the customer’s need and instead create solutions that work best for your company’s capabilities. Innovation teams should continually check in with customers, to ensure they maintain a laser-focus where it should be … with the customer first.

Change the Way You Look at Things

Cunningham likes to quote Wayne Dyer, an American philosopher and motivational speaker: “if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. Her focus has been to introduce newer, more modern and agile customer insights approaches to 3M’s innovation teams.

Customer insights professionals know how to design customer interactions, both qualitative and quantitative, that will deliver the learning that is desired. For instance, one important piece of advice Cunningham gives that usually surprises teams is that you never, ever ask the question you want answered. You need an approach that is designed to help you “get at” the answer or “intuit” the answer. The approach is often non-linear and can feel disjointed to many.

3M’s Connected Safety business is a great example of the power of looking in new ways. Rather than acting on gut feel, the team has spent the last year and a half studying worker safety in action to identify customer needs that, if satisfied, could help make work much safer.

After first exploring with open minds to allow for new inspiration, and then checking back often with stakeholders to clarify, refine and validate what they learned, they’re confident their program to leverage connectivity and big data addresses real issues and will significantly impact safety.

Unbiased Observers

Insights leader on the project, Michelle Ebert, says: “During the research, we learned from a wide range of customers and non-customers – from end-users to upper management – and not just the ones with safety in their title. We did not link the research to 3M to avoid any bias.”

No matter the industry, customer insights can help teams get past the surface level to understand who their customers are; what their daily lives are like; and how they do their jobs.

“To spot opportunities for improvement, we need to see things as they really are – including all the human work-arounds that people come to accept as normal, like balancing things on their knees when their hands are full, removing a respirator to talk, or taking off safety-glasses to minimize fogging,” explains Michelle Ebert.

Interested in Insights?

If you’re looking to build your intuition and generate hypotheses by gathering some insights yourself, here are some tips from the 3M experts:

  • Include more people than your customers – and definitely include some who have used different solutions.
  • Use DIY, “cobbled-together” prototypes – you want to spark ideas, not focus in on a finished solution.
  • Ask open-ended questions – and make sure you understand why people do whatever they do, however obvious it seems.
  • Listen and observe – and never try to correct people if they seem to be using a product wrongly
  • Never try to sell to them either.

For more information on how Connected Safety connects people, places and information for safer workplaces, click here.

This article was originally published in the 3M (P)articles blog on June 03, 2016.