Observe and Learn

Getting fresh insights is a crucial step in the ideation process. Gijs Van Wulfen shares his suggestions on sourcing inspiration.

The fuzzy front end of innovation confronts you with a lot of questions. In my new book ‘Creating innovative Products and Services’ I try to solve them with the FORTH innovation method.

When there is a sudden need for innovation, at the initiative of a marketer or R&D manager a few people are invited for a brainstorming session. But often nothing innovative materialises. When you brainstorm unprepared with the usual colleagues hardly anything new appears. At these moments you all experience a feeling of failure. And you realise there are no old roads to new solutions.

That’s why it is essential to get fresh insights before you start creating ideas. This is the essence of stage two of the FORTH innovation method: Observe and Learn. Who is the potential customer and what motivates and frustrates him or her? That’s key. All team members will visit customers and others that serve as a source of inspiration for the innovation opportunities, identified in the kick-off. Ask yourself the question “If we want to innovate in this direction, from whom can we learn?”.

There are four ways in the Observe & Learn phase to get inspired.

1. Explore trends

Trends produce inspiration for new product or service ideas. The challenge lies in anticipating new concepts or business models based on these trends. However, to look for and discover these market trends, you have to look far ahead. And then you can convert megatrends into maxi-trends (what does this mean for the consumers and companies?). And convert maxi-trends into market trends (what does it mean for customer behaviour in this market?). The market trends derived in this way can provide excellent insights for new product or service ideas.

2. Explore technology

Technological developments also serve as a wonderful source of inspiration. Good insight into technological development can be found world wide and for specific fields. You will find technological resources in your own country as well, such as Technical Universities, research centres linked to the government or research organisations linked to larger technological groups such as Google, Philips, Siemens or Vodafone. So, get into contact with market leaders such as Microsoft, IBM or Cap Gemini or other companies who are involved in the ‘best practice’ in the timely anticipation of new technology regarding your product or service portfolio.

3. Explore Innovation Opportunities

During the FORTH kick-off workshop, the innovation team selects innovation opportunities and concrete sources of inspiration are brainstormed. Each team member will contact the selected source of inspiration and visited them in order to explore the opportunity. In this way he/she searches for ‘best practices’ of different companies as well as valuable practical experience gained by others. It is very important that each team member waits with his or her judgement and to make sure they do. The moment one starts to judge you stop discovering and you go back to the paved and smooth roads of before.

4. Explore Customer Frictions

Recent research shows that meeting customers in person and discovering customer frictions with the aid of focus groups are the most effective sources of inspiration when it comes to ideating new product ideas. This has also been my experience with FORTH innovation projects over the past years.

A customer friction is a (re) discovered relevant need, urge or wish from a specific target group in a recognisable situation, which is not sufficiently satisfied and which you can use as a relevant basis for a new distinctive product concept.

My experience as a marketer taught me that both consumers and business customers do not change their behaviour easily. Yet, they are the people to whom we want to introduce new products or services. It can only work if our new product or service actually is attractive to them because it solves an existing and relevant friction. In this way you make something possible which they have not been able to achieve but really want to. There are several ways to discover customer frictions:

  • Personal visits. The purpose is to get the innovation team members from behind their desks and to immerse them into the market through personal contact with real customers. The trick is to find the right type of customers. The choice you make must relate to the innovation assignment. It is obvious that with an assignment for evolutionary innovations you have to visit regular or large buyers and users. For revolutionary innovations you will try and find lead users or non-buyers, ex-buyers and critical buyers, to find out why they have stopped purchasing the product or why they adapt your current products.
  • Focus groups. Discovering customer frictions in the focus groups is very effective. We usually invite six to eight people for the focus group in a place where there are good facilities for the innovation team to be able to join in. You try to discover:

• What do you want, what keeps you busy or what do you find important?

• With what are you struggling? What have you come up against?

After the discussion, the innovation team start dissecting the customer frictions mentioned. Through this collective discussion and interpretation a good focus group leads to at least ten customer frictions.

  • Web search and crowd sourcing. The web is full of social networks, forums and discussion groups. It is amazing how many people share their experiences, frustrations, wishes and ideas on the web. By becoming member of those networks you really get access to inside information. And the positive aspect of it is that you discover it yourself! One of the tools you might use is crowd sourcing.

By exploring an ideation team gains relevant new customer insights and discovers the most interesting innovation opportunities. This will create a solid foundation for the new roads leading to new solutions.

You can download two checklists for the Observe & Learn phase for free. I wish you a lot of success on your own exploration expeditions.

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’.

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