The insight that sparks innovation appears to occur randomly. After all, the iconic shorthand for innovation is a light bulb, implying that ideas come from sudden flashes of inspiration. While such flashes are surely good things, it is hard to depend on them, particularly if you are at a company that needs to introduce a steady stream of innovative ideas.
Steve Jobs once said, “It is not the customer’s job to know what they want.” That’s absolutely right. It is yours. And don’t think you don’t have a customer because you work in an internal support function or for a company that provides components or services. Everyone has a customer, whether it is a purchaser, user, or co-worker.
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1. Get to Context
In 2000, when A.G. Lafley became CEO of Procter & Gamble, he found a company that had lost its way. The stock had plunged almost 50% after a March 2000 warning that the company would miss earnings estimates. Lafley looked for simple ways to reenergize that company’s innovation energy. He came to the conclusion that P&G needed to fundamentally reorient itself. The company was world renowned for driving decisions based on deep customer understanding, but upon reflection, Lafley realized that the company had drifted away from that understanding.
Lafley is gifted at communicating complicated ideas in simple ways. He developed a simple mantra to refocus P&G: The consumer is boss. He would say something along these lines: “Fellow P&G-ers, I’d like you to meet your new boss. You may think that I, as your CEO, am boss. That’s not right. You might think that the board of directors to which I report is boss. That’s not right. You might think our shareholders are the bosses. That’s not right. You might think your line manager is boss. That’s not right. We have one and only one boss that matters. The consumer. The consumer is boss.”
Lafley urged P&G to understand their boss as never before. P&G had to hear what the consumer was saying and, much more importantly, tease out what the consumer wanted but couldn’t articulate.
"One of the dirty little secrets of innovation is that even the most well-intentioned people lie."
To do this, Lafley worked to create a culture where everyone in P&G--from the chairman down--would spend time living with consumers, shopping with consumers, or working alongside consumers. He would describe invaluable insights he personally obtained in his career by spending time in the market. For example, while Lafley worked on Tide branded laundry detergent, P&G would regularly administer quantitative surveys to assess the quality of its product and packaging. Consumers reported that they loved Tide’s packaging (at the time, Tide was packaged in cardboard boxes). Yet, when Lafley was interacting with a consumer, he noticed that she almost always used a screwdriver or scissors to open the Tide box. Lafley realized that the woman didn’t want to risk breaking her nails opening the cardboard box. She said she loved the packaging because she didn’t know of any alternatives, but in reality, she had to find a creative way to open the box because of its design limitations.
Many P&G products trace their inspiration to these kinds of observations. For example, watching a woman grow frustrated when she spilled coffee...