Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Customers Are People Too: Where Innovation Begins

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

We play for the fans, not the critics.” – Russell Hammond, lead guitarist for the fictitious band Stillwater (played by Billy Crudup) from the movie Almost Famous (2000), written and directed by Cameron Crowe

Where does innovation begin?

Most innovations big and small are the consequence of defined customer requirements. That being said, everyone can probably think of an anecdotal story in which innovation was the result of mishap, coincidence, or chance. Think penicillin. Think microwave oven. Accidents certainly do happen. Unintended innovations do occur. But with the general loss of pure research and tinkering for tinkering sake, inadvertent innovations in most realms have gone by the wayside. Innovation these days is most often driven by customer requirements combined with an organizational desire to create great design.

The term “customer” in the phrase “customer requirements” I think presents a couple emerging challenges though.

1. Customers don’t want to feel like customers anymore. They don’t want to feel like a number, like a piece of information in a database. They don’t want to be talked to or at, but rather with (most of the time anyway). They’re increasingly interested in having a voice. And should they not feel involved (when they choose to be involved), or should they not feel like a person when interacting with your organization, customers have more tools at their disposal to simply shut you out.

2. Customers don’t simply act like customers anymore. As author Clay Shirky pointed out a couple years ago in his book Here Comes Everybody, “the category of “consumer” is now a temporary behavior rather than a permanent identity.” People have the power to easily produce, publish, and distribute creations of their own more so than at any other time in history. They’re not relegated to the simple role of consumer. Blogs, YouTube, Pro Tools, CafePress, Etzy, iUniverse, thegamecrafter.com are but a few examples of this power. Consumers are producers. Producers are consumers. If you’re the guitarist Russell Hammond, who do you play for when the fan and critic become one and the same?

I say, simply play for people.

Innovate for people.

At the heart of all innovation are people – creators, designers, manufacturers, distributors, and yes… customers. Customers are people too. Have empathy for them. You must think of them as more than simply customers.

I recognize a shift from “customer” to “people” may have little pragmatic value when it comes to defining requirements. It’s difficult to talk about “people requirements” without some other “customer” context. Such a shift may therefore be largely a semantic one or perhaps simply an attitudinal one. But I think it’s important. For this is where innovation begins – with people.

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