Upping Your Innovation Game
by Heather Kluter

  • Consumer Centric Innovation

    Innovation means different things to different people, and so the notion of instilling innovation in your company can be vague.

    Are we talking about simply motivating team members to think more creatively, are we considering implementing an entirely new organization-wide development process, or is it something in between? Through working with numerous companies, large and small, I’ve seen that encouraging learning and discovery can often be the best way to start if you want to create a culture of innovation. To begin, I want to separate two areas in which learning and discovery for innovation often happen. The first is learning based on customer insights, and the second is innovation based on internal (or staff) insights. As I’ve worked with clients over the years, I believe that the most successful organizations are able to pull needed innovation insights from both areas when appropriate.

When thinking about encouraging innovation based on customer insights, a couple of aspects to keep in mind for increased learning and discovery follow.

  • 1
    Put your customer front and center: Customer-centric innovation has been a mantra in product development for many years. But there are so many approaches, how does a company select one, especially at the concept stage? How do you know that the process you’ve developed will really bring the right customer input? One way is to “live your segmentation” by inviting real-life consumers to join your product-development and go-to-market process. Segmentation studies are company gold, but so many times they don’t live beyond the data and algorithms, which is an unfortunate waste. By taking the time to find real-life target consumers, you can dimensionalize your product and marketing development in ways never possible before.

    With a trusted research partner, use your segmentation algorithm to recruit customers from your key segment(s) to participation in a series of in-depth interviews. This takes time—I’ve worked with teams where we’ve had to interview 100 consumers recruited using a segmentation algorithm to find 10 true consumer segment targets. Once we found them, we kept them close throughout the development and sales cycle and made sure that they interacted with almost every department in the company.

    Once you carefully recruit these very specific consumer targets, you can begin conducting ongoing ethnographic research with them, gathering insights along the way that take into account that what people say does not always match what they think and feel. In our company, we approach our consumers as whole individuals in order to create products and services that really connect them to the brand. It’s extremely useful to get help from ethnography experts and anthropologists at this stage, getting so close to your consumers that you find them inviting you to spend days at a time with them—in their worlds. Ultimately, ethnography helps us demonstrate that the consumer—not operations or R&D—is the center of development, and it lets the consumer sell our ideas.
  • 2
    Use in-the-moment research techniques as often as you can: Today, there are more ways than ever to talk to consumers. With the benefit of technology—and when budget or time don’t allow you to be there in person—we can identify when a respondent is engaged in an activity we care about (such as eating in a new restaurant, watching a movie in the theater, or buying a new car) and can connect with them in that moment.

    By using mobile geo-intercepts, we can do some very powerful in-the-moment research and analytics to connect with shoppers and better understand their reactions to newly developed/launched products and services. And if we want to go beyond a single brand encounter to get nuanced feedback over days, weeks or longer, mobile diary studies offer remarkable access to consumers’ opinions as they unfold, change and evolve with product exposure and usage over time. Diary and customer journey studies are extremely engaging ways to allow consumers to express their opinions over a period of time in a familiar format that is much like many of the other apps they regularly use on their mobile devices. Finally, virtual ethnography is another very viable in-the-moment option. Until recently, physically being in the right place at the right time was one of the only ways to observe consumers’ behaviors. Now it’s possible to observe these moments without the time and expense of physically being there.


Now, let’s think about some ways to encourage internal innovation. This is an area that most companies see as a desired outcome; but given short term needs or other strategic imperatives often are difficult to implement. Below are some ways companies I’ve worked with have improved their internal innovation…

  • 1
    Identify and nurture your natural-born innovators: Transformation starts with the understanding, sometimes by just one energized employee, that change is paramount. Such recognition can often inspire a slow groundswell, where employees become change agents by joining data with creativity. From there, companies can begin to transform, with consumer-centric approaches that use team driven innovation to create cross-functional collaboration. Desire, excitement, and commitment among key individuals and groups can influence significant change and strengthen company culture. Through this type of change, you can help manage the company strategically to increase operational performance and competitive advantage, and to better satisfy customers.
  • 2
    Encourage a culture of workshops: At Decision Analyst, we often lead our clients in ideation/brainstorming workshops with internal stakeholders. These can be one time sessions or more longitudinal types of regularly scheduled sessions. These sessions are often most successful when participants come from a range of areas within the organization including; operations, marketing, research, etc. Though taking an initial investment of time from those within the client organization, we have found these sessions well worth the expenditure in order to bring new ideas to the forefront and move forward with the best possible innovation concepts. By including multiple areas in the company, these sessions can diffuse ideas throughout an organization quickly and ensure that any “go ahead” concepts fit with the company’s goals, capabilities, and overall strategy. One warning about workshops to keep in mind is who you have in the sessions and how you structure the large and small group discussion participants; our experience has been not to have direct reports in the same small group. Our larger sessions typically last one half day to a full day and incorporate large and small group breakouts and discussions; however, developing a culture of workshops can entail a small group meeting with only a few people using brainstorming principles to innovate.
  • 3
    Allow innovation to be a team sport: By accepting that innovation is not something that only “creative geniuses” can do and by believing that great ideas can come from anywhere within the company, you can build a core team, and an extended innovation team, to join you on your innovation journey. Start by recruiting an executive who is naturally inclusive of others and who believes in the power of cross-cultural collaboration and innovation. When looking for that high-level support, like-minded, courageous leaders who are not afraid to take a risk are your best bet when trying to build a culture of innovation. These leaders tend to be people who are willing to accept small wins along the long road to big cultural change.

    The development of a core team (and an extended team) can open up communication paths required for winning innovation. When departmental silos break down and innovation becomes a valued team effort, an invitation to join the discovery team becomes a privilege. This privilege ends up being promoted organically throughout the company by some of the initial attendees who feel freed and inspired by the new process. The cross-functionality greatly helps to discover ways to innovate not just products, but also functions, logistics, business models, and processes. The idea that innovation occurs only when a small team works at it can lead to the death of true organizational innovation.

Having looked at learning and discovery from both internal and external perspectives, a couple of things to keep in mind as you move forward. These are some things that can help to really encourage an innovative culture.

  • 1
    Look outside your industry: A key element to the discovery process is to work toward removing the myopia that often sets into our processes, ideas, and general thinking. Engage your teams in a variety of non-industry activities designed to flesh out unique insights into target markets, white space, and best practices. Consider exploring and better understanding market channels that you need to influence, even if you don’t control them, if they are important consumer touchpoints. The careful selection of non-industry activities allows a deeper understanding of the product and the marketing concepts you are developing, and the discussions lead to innovative ideas appropriate for your consumer targets.
  • 2
    Don’t worry about budget in the beginning: You don’t have to start by developing a structured or detailed innovation framework with a big team and even bigger price tag. You can simply start with your own curiosity. Successful innovation teams follow the advice of Edith Widder, who said, “Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let's all go exploring.” Through home-grown, free activities, you can begin to conduct your own regular futuring, trend-tracking, scene-hunting, and unstructured ethnographic research – all this can be almost FREE to do. At first this type of research may be unsanctioned and/or a huge cultural departure, but if you believe that success will not come from the current path your company is on, you may be willing to take some calculated risks.
  • 3
    Be agile but remember that change is scary for some (or most) of us: You can hold your innovation team to its overall goals, but don’t expect every tactic to stick. Be prepared for constant flexibility and change in order to continuously build supporters and encourage fluid ideation and concept advancement. Ultimately, you can end up with a process that becomes more “official” and may include things like technical, team-based concept evaluation, senior management-focused project phase reviews, development-process metrics, and strategic cross-generational program management. These processes can help to frame your innovation efforts and systematically integrate them into the way your company does business.

    While doing all of this, keep in mind that some people may not be as eager as others to accept change. How often have you sat through a meeting where a team member suggests a new way of doing something, and someone immediately interjects with, “Yes, but…,” then proceeds to list numerous reasons why that idea won’t work. This “yes but-er” may have solid experience and sound judgment, which makes his or her response seem reasonable. Breaking down walls and changing what may have been created by the very people you’ve recruited to help you can be hard. But when you get it right, you end up with an interconnected innovation culture and system that helps you repeatedly turn new ideas into profit for the business.
  • 4
    Show off your success: Finally, get a win under your belt as soon as you can. This can be difficult to do in industries where the development and sales cycles take years. But in general, I’ve seen that the quicker you can demonstrate measurable success, the better. It’s important to focus attention on factors that deliver the highest value to your key customer segment(s), lead to the discovery of new ideas, and break out of unquestioned industry traditions. Seek to identify aggressive, yet achievable, future performance targets most relevant to customer needs and values. A win to get excited and shout about will fuel the fire of discovery teams on the path to success.

In closing, innovation is critical to business success and we should use every means that we have to facilitate innovation within our organizations and “Up” our innovation game. Using both an internal and external lens, organizations can (and should) reward and encourage innovation rather than dissuade it! Make innovation an integral part of your organization's culture to drive success!

About the Author

Heather Kluter (hkluter@decisionanalyst.com) is Senior Vice President, Automotive Research at Decision Analyst. She may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.


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