Henry Ford famously say, ‘If I were to ask my customers what do they want, they’d ask for faster horses’. If Ford meant by this that listening to the customer was a waste of time, he was wrong. Obviously, he didn’t know how to get inside the desire statement and find the nuggets.

In any case most people do not start with ‘what the customer wants’. but with what seems novel or achievable. They pick one that somehow occurs to them intuitively or generate a lot of ideas by brainstorming and then test them with the customer to see which ones he likes the best. No wonder, innovation is such an expensive proposition. Wouldn’t it make more sense to first find out what he really needs and then generate solutions for it?

Innovation depends on discovering that nugget. Finding solutions to achieve that is usually a simple affair.

Profit comes by creating products that most customers will find valuable according to their individual criterion. If so, the real question seems to be ‘What criterion do customers use to measure value’. If you do not know that the other person will ‘count’ the notes of cash to find out their value, you might mistakenly try to pay him as per the ‘weight’ or ‘colour’ of the currency notes! Knowing the criterion he will use, is essential.

When asked ‘What would you want?’, many customers offer their requirements in the form of a ‘solution’. They describe the physical or tangible features they want to see in the product e.g a lubricated blade strip or a sharper drill bit. But there is a large gap between what they say they want and what they are actually trying to get done. Since customers are not engineers, they say ‘ lubricated blade strip’ while what they are trying to get done is ‘minimize the number of nicks during a shave’ . If you listen only to his ‘lubricated blade strip’ statement without analyzing it, you’ll create a ‘me-too’ type of product with several shapes and sizes of lubricated blade strips, rather than a product that minimizes nicks.

A more detailed understanding of the actual benefit sought, expressed in terms of precise outcome, is always helpful. For a cell manufacturer ‘Easy to use’ could well been any of these –

  • Minimize the time it takes to look up a contact number.
  • Minimize the time it takes to open an application.
  • Easy to use with just three fingers of a hand.
  • Easy to switch between silent and silent profile.

Taking this forward, let us see what types of customer inputs are necessary for a good innovation. It seems there are three of them –

  • Job To be Done ( JTBD ) – What tasks or activities are they using your product for. A pen being purchased for extensive writing, calls for innovations that must be different from those needed for a pen being purchased as an expensive gift. It is worth noting that customers use products for several jobs at the same time – functional and emotional. The emotional jobs may well be at the social and/or personal level.
  • Outcome – Within that job, what outcome are they trying to achieve i.e. the metrics they use to define success.
  • Constraints – Under what constraints are they trying to do their job. These constraints must not be disregarded and, if possible, improved upon. If we know that the sub machine gun may well be needed to be used while the soldier slithers down from a helicopter(during which time the right hand is on the rope), the position of the trigger must be such that it is usable by the left hand too.

Ford was wrong. By the customer statement (Give me faster horses), he should have made out they that the outcome they want is to get from here to there in a shorter time frame.

Being customer driven might be good but being outcome driven is better.

Note – All terms and example used here are from the strategy of ODI (Outcome Driven Innovation), popularized by Anthony W.Ulwick. I find it sensible.

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