Thomas A. Edison and his invention of the lightbulb are so deeply rooted in our cultural knowledge that every child knows this story. But although Edison registered over 2,300 patents, he was even more than a Gyro Gearloose-style inventor: he was an innovator, creating six entire industries, all of which still exist and are valued today at more than 100 billion dollars. He said, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.” But how did Edison define utility, and what were his lessions to get that mind-set? These are the questions his great-grandniece Sarah Miller Caldicott tries to answer in her article “Ideas-First or Needs-First: What Would Edison Say?”
A salutary setback: The Electronic Vote Recorder
Caldicott describes a critical incident in Edison’s early career, a failure that left a long-lasting impression on him and changed the way he innovated: his invention of the Electronic Vote Recorder in 1869. Based on his knowledge of mechanics and electrochemistry, Edison invented a machine that could quickly and accurately count votes and ascribe them to the appropriate legislator. The Electronic Vote Recorder made the process of voting far more transparent, efficient, and time-saving, eliminating the need for time-consuming and error-prone manual counting. But contrary to his expectations, the product failed. What was the problem? Edison found out that the legislators did not care at all about voting accurately or quickly. Rather, they wanted to have time to lobby their cause, to communicate with constituents and stakeholders, and to position themselves for the upcoming elections. Instead of satisfying one of those needs, Edison had developed a device for what he thought to be useful for this market.
Shifting from an ideas-first to a needs-first approach: The Electric Pen and Press
Learning from this experience, Edison changed his approach to innovation. Rather than asking “What could I invent that is useful in a market?” he asked himself “What needs are underserved in a market and should be addressed by a solution?” This shift makes a big difference: The first question turns innovation into a trial-and-error game, with the need to generate many ideas in the hope that some of them will turn out to be fruitful. The second question is far more efficient, providing a clear goal for innovation activities.
To reveal underserved needs in a market, Edison placed himself in the shoes of his target buyers, analyzing the jobs they were trying to get done and the pain points they were struggling with. This is what he did when inventing the Electric Pen and Press, a device for duplicating documents. In the late 1860s he observed an increasing demand for insurance policies and decided that this was a trend worth pursuing. So he visited various insurance agents in their offices and observed them at work. He found out that they spent a substantial part of their working time on writing tasks, copying identical clauses in insurance policies. The insurance agents were dissatisfied with this situation and wished they were able to spend more time on sales and customer care. Having taken this into account, Edison invented an electric pen that made perforations in the paper as the insurance agents wrote, and a roller that pressed ink down through the perforations onto a second sheet lying beneath the perforated master copy. In this way, the sheet with the master copy could be used like a stencil to create up to 5,000 copies of a single document. The Electric Pen and Press was a great success as it helped insurance agents to get their job done far better than before.
When customer needs are not what you think they are
History is full of examples of innovations that failed just because they did not meet real customer needs. One example is the Picturephone, introduced by AT&T in the 1970s. The product was technologically outstanding, the response from the press was enthusiastic, and the company forecasted the sale of a million sets by 1980. But the product failed across the board. It turned out that people preferred not to be seen during a phone call. They wanted to have the freedom to call somebody while lying in pajamas on the couch, picking their nose, or sitting at their messy desk.
Or why did Google Glass fail in the consumer market? Hyped as the next-level visual-field-integrated alternative to smartphones, the only record the augmented reality device holds now is for the amount of Google search results for the phrase “Google Glass failed” (more than 110,000,000!). Google Glass was without question a great idea in terms of technology, but it failed in the consumer market, among other reasons, because people just didn’t want to use it. They did not want to have information constantly visible in their everyday life, and they did not want to be perceived as potential “cyborgs”. To sum it up, it did not help them to get a job done better than products already available.
Innovating something that might be useful for customers is a risky game. A much more efficient approach – utilized by methodologies like Jobs-to-be-Done Thinking and Outcome-Driven Innovation® – is to identify clearly defined underserved customer needs first and develop solutions that precisely target them. Edison learned a lesson from his failed attempt to launch the Electronic Vote Recorder, and we can too. He shows us that customer needs must be the point of departure for any innovation activity. It is for this pioneering work on customer-centric innovation that we chose to honor him when we renamed our company in 2019 to “Edizon”, a combination of the name “Edison” and the word “horizon”.
Bringing together experts and practitioners from different industries and getting them into a dialogue was the aim of Edizon’s JTBD Institute Europe when hosting the 1st JTBD Summit Europe 2019 in Vienna. And it was undoubtedly a great success: around 100 attendees from 13 countries shared their knowledge and experiences during 1 ½ days from March 27-28 2019.
In the section retrospect of our Website you will find our event video and a lot of amazing event pictures.
We hope to see you next year at the 2nd JTBD Summit Europe March 25-26, 2020 in Vienna.
Visit our event webpage: jtbd-summit.com
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