10.11.2022

Why you should forget your product when innovating: the power of "solution-free thinking"

While the understanding of innovation used to be strongly technology-driven, we have known for some years that the market and customer needs are equally important drivers of innovation. Consequently, more and more companies put the customer at the center of their innovation efforts. Listening to the voice of the customer has become the undisputed prerequisite for successful innovation, and customers find themselves involved in various phases of the innovation process, be it in common ideation sessions, in concept development or prototyping testing.

Still, many innovation projects fail to achieve great market success, either because they do not address true customer needs, or because the improvement they deliver is only marginal from the customer’s point of view.

Why is that? Why are the many attempts of companies to innovate in a customer-oriented way not crowned by success? Is the market-pull approach to innovation perhaps not as effective as one would have thought?

 

Innovation is “creative destruction” – but people as well as markets tend to hold on to the existing

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the “market-pull” concept itself, but the key to success lies in its practical implementation. Innovation is to some extent a force of “creative destruction“, as Joseph Schumpeter stated as early as 1942. He was well aware, that in order to create something new, it is necessary to change, displace and ultimately destroy old structures. This process may be painful but necessary, so that improvements and progress can take place.

During the process of innovating, the “new”, however, is not yet tangible, and so people tend to cling to the familiar. This applies to product developers who orientate themselves towards existing products, processes, or technologies (a phenomenon called “functional fixedness“). This also applies to customers who – when asked directly – can only ever formulate their needs in relation to something they know (we all know the quote from Henry Ford “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”).

Not only people, also systems like markets tend to stick to the familiar. While product variety is extremely big in very young markets – many different versions of more or less the same products, but completely different product architectures – at some point a “dominant design” emerges. The dominant design or product archetype sets a de-facto standard of how a solution in this market generally looks like, and subsequent innovations will orientate themselves on this standard.

 

The hair drier example

This article uses the hair dryer as an example: for over a hundred years a hair dryer has been an electrical device that blows hot air onto hair. When innovating a product like a hair dryer, product development teams tend to ask themselves: How can we develop a new hair dryer? The result will be a hair dryer with many temperature levels, or hairdryers for curly or straight hair, super-fast hairdryers, hairdryers for sensitive hair and so on.

But is it really about the hair dryer? Or should innovation rather be focused on people who want to have dry hair? Probably the job customers are trying to get done when using a hair dryer – that is to get their wet hair dry – could be solved by completely different and maybe better solutions, for example by a hair-vacuum cleaner, a towel using hyper-absorbing materials or by a solution of cleaning your hair without making it wet.

Both aspects: 1) the human trait of struggling to think out-of-the-box, as well as 2) product archetypes and dominant designs, create a force towards incremental innovation, to improve more and better product features instead of focusing on the question how to create true value. The consequences are an increasing product monotony and tendency to standardization, price competition, and ultimately, the threat of being disrupted.

 

The solution: think beyond your product when innovating – but how does that work?

To avoid these pitfalls and to create groundbreaking innovations, companies must become truly customer-centric. This means that they must look beyond the existing solutions to recognize the underlying problem.

Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) is an innovation methodology that has its origin in what can be considered solution free thinking. According to the JTBD logic, a market is defined as a group of people (called “job executors”) who are trying to achieve a specific job, task, or goal.

In contrast to common market definitions, the solution space – the products and the technologies they are built on – is completely left out. Based on this solution free market definition, customer needs and their degrees of satisfaction and importance are identified applying the Outcome-Driven Innovation Process® (ODI).

Once a company has recognized the natural needs structure of a market and knows where exactly untapped innovation potential lies – only then is it time to think in terms of solutions. The advantage of this approach is that only concepts are developed that target unmet und highly important customer needs precisely.

Another advantage of this approach is that the identified innovation potential serves as a long-term guideline for innovation strategies, as Clayton Christensen explained in this article:

“If you frame your business in terms of products you’re trying to sell, life comes and goes, and you get supplanted by other products and technologies. But if you deliver something that does the job well, it will open up opportunities to use new technologies as they emerge. What your business is about is doing the job better and better, and that clarity doesn’t diminish over time because of the stability of the jobs to be done.”

 

Why JTBD is a truly customer-centric approach

What sets Jobs-to-be-Done thinking apart from many other customer-oriented approaches such as agile innovation methods or Minimum viable product (MVP), is that it puts solution-free thinking at the very beginning of the innovation process.

Most customer-oriented innovation methods have their strengths in the later phases of the innovation process, e.g., when it comes to developing and testing concrete product concepts. The power of JTBD and its practical implementation with the Outcome-Driven Innovation® (ODI) process lies in the fact that it identifies real innovation potential, on which the following steps of the innovation process can build on.

This is the reason why we speak about the ODI approach as customer-centered – and not only customer-oriented. Customer-centric means that customer needs are truly in the center of the innovation efforts along the entire innovation process from start to end.

What is the job your customers are trying to get done? Take a pen and a piece of paper, a quiet minute and try to look at your market from a consistently customer-centric perspective. Do you notice how your innovation horizon expands already with this little exercise?

If you want to dive deeper, scroll through the JTBD E-Learning platform, or participate in our live formats, such as the Innovators Talk on December 1, 2022, where you can meet and exchange with innovation experts and peers.

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