Let Customers Destroy Internal Innovation Blockers

If you are pushing up against corporate resistance to innovation, then it might be time to switch tactics. Gijs van Wulfen explains a better way of dealing with the company's immune response.

As ideation facilitator I observe the tangible struggle managers have with innovation. In my new book ‘Creating innovative Products & Services’ I have listed 10 factors that cause these struggles, which I call innovation blockers:

  1. As manager you are much too busy with the current turnover and profits. Especially at publicly traded companies all the focus is on the net results of this quarter.
  2. Due to the success in the past you are trapped in the process whereby old successful formulas are constantly being varied. Which only leads to brand extensions, with a high level of cannibalisation.
  3. Dividing companies into business units, market and product groups works against innovation as real new concepts usually do not fit into any of these definitions. Therefore in practice units tend to work more against each other rather than with each other.
  4. The urgency to innovate is absent and is only felt at the scarce moments when the competition has already attacked and ‘it hurts’ the turnover, market shares and profit.
  5. Even though much market research has been done, there is a lack of insight with managers into the motives, needs and problems of the customers, in other words real customer insights.
  6. A structured innovation process is either non-existent or the stage-gate process is organised so bureaucratically with so much ‘paperwork’ that the innovation pipeline gets blocked.
  7. Customers are not involved in the innovation process or only get involved at a very late phase.
  8. Money, manpower and management support for innovation are not structurally available but on an ad hoc basis and only on those occasions when it is necessary to ‘put out any small fires’.
  9. As manager you hardly dare to take risks as you fear that one mistake or one ambitious new product, which fails, might cost you a promising career.
  10. At the start of the process, the innovation pipeline is not systematically filled with sufficient pioneering and appealing ideas for new products, services and business models.

When I was a marketer in the fast moving consumer goods sector I was blocked by many of these obstacles for a pretty long period. And what to do then? If you start fighting them, it will turn your colleagues and bosses against you. You will lose the internal support you desperately need to ideate and implement new concepts successfully. You even run the risk they will consider you as a kind of 2011 version of Don Quichotte de la Mancha, the Spanish guy who fought windmills.

I have tried to fight these innovation blockers myself. And got frustrated many times. These forces are often much stronger than you are. But just be patient is an answer that for many innovators is not acceptable.

So my advise to you is to fight back, but not in the ordinary way. You need help from a stakeholder with the highest impact: the customer.

Learn to use your customer to create internal support and priority for innovation. How? Here are several options: take your management team or your innovation board out for a day to:

  • Use your own products and the ones of your competitors themselves, and evaluate their experiences…
  • Meet the (B2C) target group live at their homes, schools or pubs. And mingle with them and see how they live in reality, which leads to endless opportunities for innovation…
  • Talk to several loyal but critical (B2C) customers and users, which will state that your products are outdated and they expect more…
  • Start listening to (B2B) ex-customers who recently switched to an     innovative product/service from your major competitors and are very satisfied…
  • Do a one-day-internship at your biggest (B2B) customers and work with your own product, just to experience themselves what current problems are…

After reflecting on these customer experiences, your Vice-Presidents may well convince themselves they should give innovation a higher priority and more resources.

And that’s the moment. That’s the moment to show them your innovative vision and your practical roadmap to start an ideation approach that will lead to the revolutionary concepts every customer is waiting for.

It’s a very important part of your job as an innovator to poke the fire and get the urgency for innovation going. Use your customer as most important weapon. And win.

About the author:

Gijs van Wulfen (The Netherlands, 1960) is the founder of the FORTH innovation method. FORTH is an effective and structured method for ideating innovative products and services. The method is published in his inspiring and practical book Creating Innovative Products and Services’ (Gower, 2011).

He helps organisations to kick start innovation by facilitating the FORTH innovation method and advising companies on their innovation strategy, process and organisation. His clients are international companies in industry and services, as well as non-profit organisations in government and health. Gijs also trains facilitators in his method. His dream is to make FORTH the most used method for the front end of innovation around the world.

Gijs is a both presenter and chairman at several (international) innovation conferences, like the ISPIM Conferences and the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation. He is also founder of the yearly Dutch Innovation Conference on creating new products: ‘Nieuwe Producten Bedenken’.

  • Clas Mellby

    I love this. Feels like finding a soulmate. Often I use customers to challenge my own organization/management. Unfortunately since I strongly believe it is possible to design dynamic organizations that innovate all the time.

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