surveys, the “heart” approach. The truth is you need both.
The Head And The Heart
Don’t get us wrong: Data has its use. When working on innovation, it makes sense to sit down with the data you have and look at what it might be telling you. Who your customers are, what products have sold the most, which products tend to bring in new customers, and the effectiveness of promoting different features of a product are all worth considering.
That said, data has a host of problems. You don’t have a perfect sample of your industry, for example—just the customers who’ve come to your company. If you’re trying to break into a new market, historical data won’t tell you anything.
And it’s far too easy to mistake historical trends for the future. Energy is a perfect example. When energy prices were deregulated in the 1980s, it was assumed that coal would remain the cheapest form of energy for decades. But the invention of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, drove the price of natural gas well below that of coal. To add insult to injury, government agencies using historical data severely underestimated both the infrastructure and per-kilowatt cost of renewable energy, in particular failing to anticipate that they were technologies, which always get cheaper over time.
Balancing Head And Heart
Conversely, anyone who’s dealt with self-reporting surveys can tell you that the painful truth is that customers don’t tell you everything. This can be for any number of reasons; for example, if a product is of a deeply personal or intimate nature, like certain forms of medicine, people are sometimes just too embarrassed to tell you the whole truth. Even when customers are generally honest, though, you’re still speaking only to customers who are highly motivated to share their ideas. How much of your customer base are you really getting data from?
The solution is to balance what customers tell you with what the data says, and not let one override the other. This is particularly true when customer data and customer surveys contradict each other. Let’s say for example that customers tell you they’d like a particular feature on a product, but your competitors introduced that feature and it flopped. There are a few answers here: Perhaps, it’s a feature that’s strongly desired only by a small subset of customers, and the majority are uninterested. Or there was a drawback to the feature that wasn’t obvious at first. It might even be a matter of poor marketing. But it’s a question you have to find an answer to.
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A great deal of thought has been given to office design. Company leaders are constantly trying to create a workplace that improves employee happiness, productivity, and creativity. To add fuel to that fire, in a survey of over 2,500 U.S. professionals, “Eighty-two percent of participants said that a workplace must exhibit innovative design in order to truly foster a culture of innovation where they can do their best thinking.” In that same survey the three most requested attributes of a workplace hospitable to creativity were natural light, creative imagery, and reconfigurable spaces with varied furniture.
In short, your cubicle with standard issue rolling chair isn’t going to cut it anymore. So what are some examples of workplaces that are delivering on a great workplace environment?
Lack of Time for Innovation
This was the major barrier for most of our customers. This usually means that innovation goals are not a dedicated practice, but something that employees are expected to do in addition to their other existing responsibilities. Making space for experimental activities can have enormously positive consequences for new ideas – most famously Google’s 20% rule (employees spend 80% of their time on the job they were hired for but have freedom to spend 20% of their time on any other project they want) – after all gmail was a 20% time project originally. Can you make innovation someone’s dedicated role and can you give other employees more flexibility in their job description?
No Support from Senior Management for New Ideas
A passion for new ideas and a tolerance for risk starts at the top. Does senior leadership reward new bets and do they celebrate lessons learned from ideas that fail to launch? If you’ve got an innovation program at your company, but no one associates it with the company leadership it’s unlikely to be seen as a company mandate. So when you launch a program, make sure that your CEO or other leaders are part of your messaging strategy.
No Process for Managing Ideas and Testing Concepts
Maybe your leadership is totally bought in, maybe your team has the freedom to test and share new concepts… but if there’s no process to actually do so, it’s unlikely that those ideas will make it to launch. Fortunately, this is one of the easiest problems to solve. If you have some team members dedicated to continuous innovation, they can start by architecting an initial process and then iterate and improve that process over time.
No surprise that a lack of budget would be a barrier for innovation. New ideas need resources. If you’re not finding some room in the budget to prototype and learn, you’re not likely to keep pace with the changing market. We often recommend to our customers that they look for process improvement innovations that will save money first and then re-investing that savings into more experimental concepts in the next round.