I rarely meet a major business that doesn't declare they're customer-driven or, at least, increasingly customer-driven. The nuance usually speaks volumes. In practice, very few can manage, or even afford, to be entirely driven by what customers would want. Especially if you're in a consumer market, the demand doesn't exist, really. It's all about the demands (plural).

Pipelines in disguise

It gets worse when addressing innovation.

In that matter, beyond what is nice to say to the media and stakeholders, no one can afford to be fully customer-driven. It would entail spreading thin and embracing a long tail of requests, many of which contradictories, most of them evolving so rapidly that any innovation project based on them today would look absurd when arriving on the market. If in doubt, check how some corporate incubators are still working on NFT while missing out on ChatGPT. Not to mention that on many issues no, customers mostly don't know what they want three years down the road.

How could they when the market, society, and the global economy are in so many turmoils on a regular basis?

A daily slice of market uncertainties
I often discuss how uncertainties bubble up in unpredictable ways in any market, if only to explain that, non, you can’t pipeline innovation. Today, I was even surprised myself by the number of unexpected events in the news. In no specific order: πŸ€– The quite spectacular $52 billion U.S. Chips

I'll mostly skip my usual rant about innovation methodologies and how they are, at best, trying to pipeline your best ideas from three to five years ago in a market that doesn't care anymore.

If needed, you can return to my articles on why innovation is always about dealing with opportunities portfolios and creating real and powerful optionality.

Still, if we step back, something is striking when considering the current hodgepodge of design thinking and lean startup that we have lazily copied and pasted all around. It always assumes one thing: there will always be enough customers at a critical and central step to have a clear opinion about our project. And as such, they will somehow have the final cut about how we innovate.

Product market fit, feedback, or learn... Can you spot when/where the magical process can only loop on if there are customers? 

And I'm not saying this assumption doesn't work.

It works sometimes...

Customers can have an opinion

If the problem you want to solve as an innovator is already widespread and quite painful, customers are already suffering from it at scale and with enough acuity that they will have an informed opinion about it. Not a scientific or metaphysical one, but practical and experiential.

Some customers' problems are so evident that, yes, customers will have a clear opinion of the value of your innovation. The problems are both critical for these customers, who are fully aware of them. Why are they still there, then? Because until now, there was 'NO WAY' to solve them. 

Problems that are so obvious and critical that customers do have a clear opinion about them are defined in a particular innovation space. Which one? The one where there are already enough early customers to interact with (i.e., innovators and early adopters):

If the problem to solve is already critical enough, some customers will already be using crutch solutions to compensate for the pain. They don't have access to a real solution but can enter a proper feedback loop with you when you try to innovate. That being said, if your technology is too far away (or too science-fictional) customers will end up being confused and unable to interact constructively. 

This innovation space is all about mining opportunities that are already well on your customers' radar. Go crazy with lean startup and design thinking, and in some cases, yes, even pipelines!

Mining below customers' radar

But past this value space, the more you push for innovation on your market side, the more you'll have to work on unexpressed needs and, at some point, needs that don't exist yet.

(You knew I had to quote Henry Ford.)

We are speaking of an entire value space dealing with problems that are not at the same time both critical and in full customer awareness:

Some problems are already well spread and very obvious but not painful enough for anyone to really care. Solve them and customers get 'NO GAIN'. Why should you bother about them? Because maybe in just a few years (months?) they might fully bloom into critical market issues.
Other problems are already extremely critical, but customers don't seem to care or have learned not to see them. Seems weird? Think of climate change and how SUVs are still topping the charts of car sales... These problems could be solved in many different ways, but the market has 'NO WILL' to address them for now. 
And finally, some problems are so unimportant that there's no reason to put them on the radar or work on them, right? Why should we bother with 'NO PAIN' issues? It's not like AI will replace our entire after-sales staff overnight! (Oh, wait...)

This value space is not "the best" or "the worst," mind you. It's just different. It's also qualitatively very rich and diverse in the way it deals with technological (economic, industrial) and market (societal, political, legal, environmental) risks.

There's also a tremendously important thing about innovation: the more an innovation seems far away (, the less the market appears to have a problem to deal with), the bigger the payoff if, against all odds, you do change the market. Cue in the portfolio logic where innovation projects are strategically spread with different ratios of risk/reward...

Understanding the critical role of the innovation value spaces where customers don't have problems yet (or don't see them while they are already present), is key when considering how the most well-known innovation methods are ineffective at addressing them.

This core distinction between the problems to be solved for the market and the innovation value spaces where customers know what they want or not is tremendously important for the aforementioned reasons. But also because it should help you decide how you will use different strategies, tools, and teams to cover a nuanced map of innovation.

Confusing tools for methodologies

Pointing out these very important nuances, I understand I often sound like I despise tools like lean startup or design thinking.

I don't.

My crux is that they are just that. Tools. Not methodologies. This confusion is willfully sustained by many of us (consultants, trainers, corporates) as it seems to make the innovation field easier to deal with while it only masks its inherent richness.

With all this laid out, knowing when you need to listen to your customers very carefully and cycle ideas and projects through them and when you need to commit to not listening to them to begin with should be clearer. If so, you might even develop serious doubts about companies bragging about being fully and only customer-driven. Not listening to your customers does pay off 😁

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