“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This famous quotation from Henry Ford puts listening to customers and innovation opposite to each other. It is quite possible that if Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted, they might have said that they want to travel faster, putting both at the same side. Though the important thing to note here is that Ford didn’t ask customers and came up with arguably the biggest innovation of the industrial age. The question this raises is an important one: can you innovate without listening to the customers?
Companies put a lot of focus on what customers want when they develop products, which leads to great products to solve big problems faced by customers. But then there are breakthrough products which come along every now and then which no one expected or asked for. Apple is known for doing that all the time. No one asked for or expected an iPod to fit every pocket and budget, nor did anyone imagine an iPhone to revolutionize the cellphone industry. Both solved big customer problems like organizing their music in a cool device and putting a little powerful device in their pocket that can have a few dozen necessary applications (and can be used for talking) respectively. But had Apple asked customers what they want from the company, it is quite possible that they would have remained Apple Computers satisfying the need of their niche market.
So one might wonder how Apple, or for that matter any company that comes up with breakthrough innovation, does that? I believe by putting themselves in the customers’ shoes. If you develop a product that you would love to have, something that makes your life easier, something that solves some major problems for you, the chances are your customers will love to have that product as well. All you need is honesty, persistence and self critical observation.
And what about listening to customers? That’s post version uno. You put the breakthrough product out there and now let the customer chip in to tell you how you can improve it and make better to fit their needs. Then you form the maven force to help you deliver breakthrough products and great customer focused innovation.