FEI: Magic or Models? (Hint: start with WHY)

I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Front End of Innovation Conference in Boston last month. It was a terrific opportunity to engage with both thought leaders and practitioners and to explore some of the most difficult questions and exciting opportunities around the innovation space. I think we all walked away with more intelligence and empathy—and that’s certainly my measure of a successful conference.

One pervasive theme throughout our three days together was the fascinating positive tension that exists in the innovation community between chaos and order, creativity and discipline… magic and models. Many speakers and participants seemed to champion the notion of “creativity camp,” encouraging teams to shift perspectives, start building things, and embrace uncertainty, while others touted a more measured, systematic approach to innovation focused on discipline, consistency, and order to mitigate risk. MakerBot CEO, Bre Pettis, presented some provocative questions around innovation (“Is it something you can plan or more like luck? Absurdity or laboratory? A sprint or a marathon? About individual creation or collaboration?”)

Pettis was quick to note that the answer is “Yes.” The reality is that innovation is a big tent with room for both. After all, a “whole-brained” approach requires both the left (analytical) and right (creative) brains. It takes a diversity of perspectives to unlock fresh ideas that are strategically relevant.

This mirrors the debate around the definition of innovation—also the subject of more than a couple conversations throughout the conference. Is it about being “disruptive” or “close-in?” “Incremental” or “breakthrough?”

Again, the answer is a resounding YES!

I firmly believe that the biggest barrier to innovation in most organizations is the word innovation. Debating its definition can become a complete distraction. And what are teams losing focus on in the process? The customer.

That’s why we at Brandtrust® define innovation as creative problem-solving. We totally agree with Clayton Christensen that one must clarify innovation’s “job to do” based on the specific situation at hand. Teams must set their sights on both a critical customer problem as well as a business problem or opportunity.

And the first step to solving a problem is asking “Why?” So I thought I would highlight some key examples of how “Why?” helps address critical areas of focus from the conference.

Creating a Culture of Innovation: A shared “Why?” creates a shared purpose. In a great conversation around the “Neuropsychology of Creativity,” Bill Greenwald emphasized the importance of clarifying and aligning the team with the organization’s purpose or mission. Understanding and aligning with a deeper “Why?” has been shown to drive engagement and creativity. So we must be creative with a purpose.

Problem-Finding: Asking “Why?” is critical to align the team around what business problem and customer problem we need to solve before we embark on an innovation initiative. So often teams jump right into solution mode without first asking clarifying questions to determine the purpose and scope of the project. As noted earlier, if teams first take this tack the “innovation definition” question really becomes a moot point. Innovation can be about both short-term extensions and long-term disruption — depending on which problem or opportunity looms largest for the team. We appreciated Harvard Business School professor Michael Tushman’s assertion that business leaders must embrace multiple classes of innovation and create the “structural ambidexterity” to enable them to thrive.

Adopting Fresh Perspectives: Craig Lauchner from Medtronic coached participants on “Assumption-Storming”—a great approach to systematically reframe challenges by surfacing and challenging “lynchpin” assumptions. This is a terrific methodology that reminds us to question our assumptions by laying out the rules of the game and asking “Why?” Why is this a given? And what if we broke this rule—what would that unlock? So often the key to breaking through is simply adopting a fresh perspective on the challenge itself.

Architecting Meaningful Brand Experiences: On display at the conference was a range of approaches to gathering and incorporating customer and consumer input to inform innovation, from ethnography to online panels to direct, in-person co-creation. All are rooted in building empathy and all certainly have merit. What’s critical to understand is when you need to ask “What?,” “How?” and “Why?,” and which tools answer which questions. “What?” is an important question to understand customers’ current frame of reference, solution set and behaviors. “How?” reveals powerful observational data around pain points, workarounds and opportunities for user design enhancement. “Why?” is about taking a step further, or deeper, to understand what actually drives customers’ decision-making vis-a-vis a particular category and brand.

“What?” and “How?” enable you to understand and articulate functional behaviors and opportunities today. “Why?” enables you to understand emotional drivers to influence behavior tomorrow.

Of course, the difficulty with understanding WHY people do things is that we don’t really know… and they don’t either. Research suggests that as much as 95% of decision-making occurs in the non-conscious mind rather than the conscious mind (the system that is engaged when we are in a conversation or take a survey.) This is why if you want to know what someone thinks or wants, the worst thing you can do is ask them. When asked a direct question, we go into “right answer mode.” We won’t admit we don’t know why we do something, and we try to tell the interviewer what we think they want to hear. This comes from a great place of helpfulness but it elicits data that can take us off track.

We love Pepsi Chief Design Officer Mauro Porcini’s perspective that we should “listen to consumers. Just don’t believe them.”

Understanding the 95% of decision-making that resides in the non-conscious requires a new toolkit rooted in psychology. While it’s not a customer’s job to tell you what they want, if you use the right approach you can understand how they want to feel and, most critically, who they want to be. It’s the brands like Nike and Apple that best close the gap between a customer’s true and aspirational selves and inspire irrational loyalty.

Most importantly, understanding customers’ deep “Why?” enables you to laser-focus on solving the right problem. And if “innovation” is solving the right problem, does it really matter what label we put on it, or what box we put it in to support the case for a customer experience focus?

What did you think of FEI 2014? Let us know here or on Twitter!


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