What’s the Secret to Successful Innovation?
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Innovation Aug 2, 2022

What’s the Secret to Successful Innovation?

Hint: it’s not the product itself.

standing woman speaking with man seated on stool

Michael Meier

Henry Ford once said, “If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.”

Most people in the early 20th century would not have been able to envision a motorized vehicle replacing horse-drawn buggies. But they definitely knew they wanted to get from their homes to the store faster.

I have spent the entirety of my career (as an entrepreneur, designer, venture capitalist, and business-school professor) focusing on how to ensure that innovative ideas successfully gain traction in the market. One of the biggest lessons I have learned in my experience working with companies of all sizes—including my own—is that most successful innovations speak directly to the progress consumers want to make, even when people can’t tell you that themselves.

As an innovator, then, your job is to reframe the product/service-creation process as understanding the progress people want to make and then helping them do that in a more effective, differentiated way than what’s already out there.

The Three Dimensions of Progress

When people look to improve something in their lives, they’re usually thinking about three specific dimensions: functional, social, and emotional.

The functional dimension is about getting something done faster or better, as in the car-versus-buggy example above. The social component is how a given product makes us appear to others, such as wearing specific clothing brands. The emotional dimension is about how a given purchase makes us feel about ourselves.

People “hire” a product to serve them on all three dimensions. Consider why someone might pursue an MBA at a top business school (like Kellogg, where I teach). Functionally, the degree will provide learning in areas they may need, such as finance or operations, which will help them progress in their careers, land a new job, or make a higher salary. Socially, earning a reputable MBA can signal to others that the degree holder is competent, capable, and intelligent.

The one dimension that tends to be overlooked is emotional value. In this case, a top MBA endows the graduate with a sense of accomplishment and, more importantly, security regarding their professional future. That sense of security is highly valued—especially in times of uncertainty and economic contraction, such as the one we find ourselves in now.

These three dimensions of value apply to purchases as large as a house or as small as a pack of gum. Thus, these value sources must be understood to create highly appealing and enduring products and services.

But that’s easier said than done.

Tap into the Unspoken

The problem that Ford alludes to is that most people can’t articulate what type of product they want or convey the specific kind of progress they want to make in their lives. To get at true consumer needs—especially the social and emotional ones—you have to take a more indirect route.

When people look to improve something in their lives, they’re usually thinking about three specific dimensions: functional, social, and emotional.

— David Schonthal

1. Focus on the past, not the future.

It’s tempting to ask people about the future—what they want to do or would do. Resist that impulse. It’s almost impossible for someone to tell you with certainty what they will do a month from now, but they can tell you with accuracy what they did a month ago. What products and services did they purchase to make the progress they were seeking in the past? How did they make those decisions? What were their moments of struggle? What got them past their concerns? Such questions will provide key clues to the kinds of solutions needed and how to communicate their value to buyers.

2. Exchange breadth for depth.

Go deep. Interview people for an hour each and get into as many of the “whys” behind their stories and answers as you can. The true social and emotional value people seek is not in what they choose to do (or not do) but in why they do it. And we’re not talking about large numbers here. A good researcher can learn a ton from interviewing 10–12 people for 60 minutes each. Moreover, from a group of this size, actionable patterns will begin to emerge. The key is unpacking their answers to get to the underlying meaning behind them, as below.

Them: “I’m just looking for a solution that’s more convenient than the one I’m using.”

You: “What exactly do you mean when you say ‘convenient’? Why does the current solution fall short?”

3. Reduce friction and stop adding fuel.

Innovators often spend too much time thinking about their nifty solution and not enough time about the audience they are hoping to impact. Humans will always favor what they are familiar with over something unknown (which, by definition, an innovation is). As you design new offers, make sure you also think hard about how to reduce obstacles to consumers adopting them. These frictions are often less about your new offer than about the concerns and worries of the customer.

To sharpen that point even further, when someone does not eagerly adopt our new product or service, our instinct as entrepreneurs and innovators is that we have not marketed it correctly, priced it appropriately, or included the right set of features. If we can just find the right mixture of these “fuels,” we believe, people will eventually say “yes.” Instead, aim to spend more time forecasting and removing the sources of functional, social, and emotional friction that might stand in the way of those you’re selling to.

In sum, the secret of successful innovation is focusing more on the progress people seek to achieve than on the product that gets them there. Customers can’t always tell you what they want, but they can most certainly tell you what they are hoping to accomplish. This is much easier to do when we pay attention to functional, social, and emotional value, understand the “why” behind the “what,” and reduce the friction that almost always stands in the way of adoption.


This article originally appeared in Inc.

Featured Faculty

Clinical Professor of Strategy; Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Kellogg; Faculty Director of the Zell Fellows Program; Director of the Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice

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