I've been thinking about trends lately. Not in how I might identify them, but in observing how other people think about them. Some want to be trend setters. Others are fearful that they will miss an opportunity if they fail to recognize a trend. What's common in these points of view is that trends are often seen as isolated occurrances that spring out of nowhere. They see trendwatchers as people with a crystal ball who predict the future. I don't agree that this is true, and for that reason I don't base my decisions on predictions by trend forecasting companies. If I read them at all, it's to understand why they made the prediction.
Then yesterday I was pleasantly surprised. I was looking at trendwatching.com's top 15 trends for 2009. In it they defined a trend as: "A manifestation of something that has unlocked or newly serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need,* desire, want, or value."
Bingo! They went on to say that basic human values don't really change. What does change are the social and economic contexts in which we live, which may surface issues that haven't concerned our society in a long time. Technology is always evolving, giving us new ways to express or satisfy our current concerns. On the surface, it may look like new trends are emerging that we have never encountered before. And while it's true that we haven't encountered the specific expressions before, if we dig a little deeper we will find that the underlying drivers have not changed much at all. Digging deeper is where we will find our answers.
And while we're speaking of trends, one trend I am seeing lately is the fact that more organizations are recognizing the importance of understanding consumer values and motivations as a way to succeed in the long term. Their bigger issues are in translating these values into products and services that will satisfy consumer needs within today's social, economic and technological contexts. When they get that translation right, they won't have to worry about trends, because they'll be transcending them.
Now that's an underlying recipe for success that doesn't change.
The internet doesn't encourage people to do anything they wouldn't already do. It does, however, make it easier for them to do what they would want to do anyway, such as finding others with whom they share interests. Today, groups of people can rally around a cause, idea, hobby or other passion like never before. Even people with very niche interests can gain strength in numbers, giving them a stronger voice and greater power to make things happen.
On the surface, it would seem like this is a marketer's dream. Just find these groups, and you have a ready audience to whom you can market your products and services. But it's not working out that easily. These groups have become much more than billboards for the eyeballs they attract each day. They have become thriving, vibrant communities of people who care about each other and do not want to be assaulted by blatant marketing and sales tactics.
This has highlighted the importance of truly understanding your consumers. The insights you derive should guide your company to new ways to provide authentic experiences that your consumers will value. You need to become one of them before they will pay attention to you. The internet has made this point blatently obvious as we see so many companies fail to gain traction with their "online media strategies." But the fact that it's obvious now doesn't mean that it wasn't always true.
Many companies make the mistake of thinking that this is how the online world is different from the traditional channels they know well. In reality, this is how the expectations of newly empowered consumers will change the way the traditional world works. Are you ready to meet these challenges?
Who at your company is responsible for understanding the consumer inside and out? How is this understanding changing the way you think about the way you do marketing and develop new products and services? Hopefully you've discovered that the lines are blurring, which may be a bit confusing. If so, then see it as a sign that you're on the right track.
While we're on the topic of publishing, Chuck Frey of Innovation Tools published an article I wrote about guiding innovation with consumer research.
It's a brief how-to, illustrating how consumer research is applied differently for incremental improvement or developing breakthrough innovation. The example is from the past, and shows how consumer research on a desktop computer could lead to the improvements we enjoy today, or to the development of the laptop. I'd love to know if it clarifies the common "one size fits all" perception of consumer research techniques.
Innovation Tools is a weekly newsletter where Chuck shares tools, methods, and ideas he collects through the week. It's a great place to find all the latest tools and thought leadership to aid in mind-mapping exercises, brainstorming, bringing out creativity, etc. As with any resource, use it wisely. Tools can help you to be better and more efficient at what you need to do. No single tool, however, can give you the answer, or transform your organization on its own. You still have to do that work.
You can also download it here, and if it's helpful, feel free to share it - but don't sell it. consumer guided innovation.pdf (66.32 kb)
For the last few months, I've been fortunate enough to be a participant in Seth Godin's online experiment - Triiibes. This is a learning community, (currently, membership is by invitation only) and participants are actively exploring questions about the future of markets and marketing, and the forces that are changing the competitive landscape. It has been a companion experiment to his latest book: Tribes - We Need You To Lead Us. I have learned enormously from the experiment, and offer thanks to Seth for starting it, and to the fellow community members for their participation and enlightened perspectives.
This week, Seth launches the book at an event in New York City. It offers a new perspective that the future of successful marketing lies in the ability to create, connect and lead tribes. Why is this important? Because as innovators we need to learn to rally support from within our companies, our clients, and our peers. Without the support we need from others we cannot succeed. Without strength in numbers, what we are doing is too scary for most people to support us. We need to acknowledge their need to belong and believe in something greater than they can imagine today. We do this for a living, and it's our responsibility to show the way.
In addition to the book, Triiibes - the online community, has collaborated on an ebook of tribal case studies. Each one discusses elements that get to the heart of what makes tribes successful. It's available to download for free, and I feel fortunate to have had two case studies selected for inclusion. Download, enjoy, and share!
updatedtribescasebook.pdf (2.97 mb)
The mantra that good ideas can come from anywhere is true. It is also true that some of the best innovations are inspired by solutions found in nature or other unrelated categories, such as George de Mestral's idea for velcro coming from burdock thistles.
What is not entirely true is that innovation happens by chance. While the solutions themselves were inspired by seemingly random occurrences, the fact that they were recognized as viable solutions is not random at all. Defining the conditions that would constitute a viable solution is hard work, and it is this work that separates successful innovation from fads or irrelevant inventions.
Companies are realizing that it is more important than ever to be able to innovate in meaningful ways. Many are scrambling to figure out how to solicit new ideas, or to figure out which new technologies will propel them into the future. I have seen very few who are developing new processes that will enable them to recognize viable ideas when they see them. And yet, it will be this skill that will enable long-term success from innovation efforts.
I wrote a post not long ago about how good design embraces constraints. Consistent with that idea, I would say that good innovation processes create the right constraints. When you think about your company's innovation processes, how much attention is given to developing the right constraints vs generating random ideas?
I was thinking about a class I taught last month. It was a section on innovation for an MBA product development course. I teach this class every year and, in the beginning of the class, I ask the students to define what innovation is to them. I am struck by how much better the answers get each year.
A few years ago, innovation was more likely to mean inventing things that no one had ever seen before. The students seemed to have very sci-fi ideas and definitions. This has evolved, and this year they referred to things that included process improvements, and coming up with new ways to compete.
Here is my definition of innovation: Doing something new that adds value to your business. It could be a product, a service, a new process, organizational structure or business model. The point is that the organization does something new, and even more important, it adds value to the business.
This means that organizations who want to be more innovative need to be able to recognize and support innovation from every part of the company. The good thing is that people generally seem more open to the fact that innovation is more than a sci-fi invention, and that they could probably contribute to it. While this also means that there is no single way to reward it or measure it, there is one thing that remains constant. In order to be able to do something different that will be valuable, there must be an understanding of the organizational goals.
Does everyone in your company know what will make your organization successful? Do they know how their day to day jobs influence that success? If they don't, then they won't know whether doing something different will add any value. And then they won't change a thing.
I recently wrote about how good design embraces constraints. In the comments, Kelly asked how we should go about focusing a client on the possible design constraints upfront in the process. This is a good question, and the extent to which you can identify all the constraints upfront depends on the extent to which you are looking to improve the existing offering, or you are looking for a breakthrough.
In my experience, if you are looking to improve on an existing offering, the real constraints typically consist of tangible boundaries that are easy to identify. These would be things like current manufacturing processes, distribution channels, category definition, and organizational structures. If the new design needs to fit within these constraints, the designer should be made aware of them in the beginning. It is then part of the designers job to creatively work within these constraints. For example, if I am a company that manufactures padlocks, and I am improving my current product, the constraints should be easy to identify.
On the other hand, if you want to develop a breakthrough innovation, it is necessary to understand that one of the most important outcomes of the project will be to indentify the constraints. In this case the real constraints tend to be less tangible, consisting of things like the consumers' culture, and macroeconomic regulations and conditions. Any of the constraints listed above would be self-imposed. Back to the padlock example, if I want to develop a breakthrough innovation, defining my company as a padlock company would be unnecessarily limiting. I could redefine the company as a security company, and a whole world of options opens up. The real constraints for how consumers perceive security would need to be indentified as part of the project, before potential solutions are explored. Once potential solutions are explored and selected, the next set of constraints needs to be defined. These would be things like where, how they will be made, new organizational processes that will be needed, which categories will now define the offering, etc.
The point is that regardless of the type of project you are undertaking, the constraints should be identified before the designer starts designing anything. If we are trying to do something truly new, we should be aware that defining constraints is part of the process, and we should be prepared for the reality that current constraints may not need to be imposed on future offerings.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you are aware that the current financial crisis is causing many businesses to rethink what they are doing. That often entails scaling back or postponing large innovation efforts, or modifying new product releases to better align with consumers' changing priorities. The intention here is good. Since we won't realize the benefits of the big innovation project until some point in the future, what harm will a few more months do? In the meantime, we can make a few quick hits, and shore up the bottom line. All too often, however, the quick hit becomes an all consuming endeavor for little gain, the big innovation project falls off the rails, and the future arrives with depleted resources and precious little on the horizon.
I happen to be a proponent of quick hits. When they fail to deliver, it's usually not because of a big, bad decision. It's usually the result of several small, good-in-the-moment decisions, that collectively take the project off track. Here are a few things to keep in mind at each small decision point, that should help your quick hit to add value:
Make sure that the quick hit you are undertaking is in fact quick. Define up front what will be done, and stick to it ruthlessly. While a bigger project may benefit from the "while you're doing this, you might as well..." syndrome, a quick hit needs relentless focus.
If at all possible, keep the longer term projects moving, even if at a slower rate. This is hard for tiny companies, but it's crucial. Longer term projects require that people spend more time thinking about the implications of their decisions. Being able to tap into this will help the quick hit team to keep the right goals in mind, and not base everything on expediency.
Regarding expediency, just because something can be done quickly, does not mean it should be done. Putting lipstick on a pig does not change the pig. All this will do is erode your consumers' confidence in you. They will feel like you tried to put something over on them, and they won't want to pay for it. Best to show them that you will only act in their best interest. Everything else is waste. Seth Godin has an interesting post today about making those tough decisions.
Remember that you exist to serve your customers. If you know that your consumers will benefit from a certain feature, function, or service, it's better to make a small change in that direction than to implement something totally new that they care less about. Again, you need to build their confidence that you are there for them, and they will stay with you for the longer haul.
Finally, remember that whatever you do for your quick hit, it will be with you longer than you planned. Undertaking a quick hit diverts resources from other projects, and you may need to depend on the quick hit for longer than initially estimated while the other projects get back on track. Make sure it's something you, and your consumers, will value.