Bob Schultek
Author of
The Gauntlet

When considering an innovation initiative, leaders tend to start by evaluating their accumulated product or service data. They know the profit margin for each offering, and how well each is selling in key markets; often, they have a good sense of market share for each offering. They may even have customer satisfaction metrics available for each product or service. 

But all of this internally-generated data does little to clarify why customers choose a specific product or service, what makes a particular offering valuable to them, what unsatisfied need or aspiration was resolved by their choice. Yet, it is this readily-available, internal data that most often guides their innovation decisions, which explains why many never succeed. 

Successful innovations result from being outwardly focused, on markets, customers and prospects. The research that produces winning innovations probes deeper than understanding customers’ traits, or adding fancy, new features to your offerings, or following new trends, or imitating your competitors. The objective is to learn what a targeted customer values and why. This involves observing and questioning to discover the factors, and more importantly, the processes that drive the customer’s choice, that help the customer progress towards a specific objective. 

It isn’t the coffee that Starbuck’s customers queue up for every morning. It’s the way that coffee improves their morning routine (their process)…making their commute more satisfying, or delivering an energy boost when they arrive at the office, or conveying to others that they can afford a Starbuck’s, or just enabling them to better manage their morning by occasionally pausing their work long enough to enjoy a sip. The coffee improves the process they use to achieve their objectives. 

To better understand process research, consider Pasteur and why he was a successful innovator? Many assume that his fame is based on his novel technique for making dairy products safe for consumption. In reality, his notoriety results from discovering germ theory, the process of disease transfer. Before Pasteur, there were all manner of inaccurate theories about why people became ill. He proved that germs were the cause of illness and that they were transmitted through a process. Identifying that process enabled Pasteur to interrupt it and prevent the spread of illness. This is what led to the innovations of pasteurization and penicillin. All our ongoing efforts to defeat our current Covid challenge would be impossible without Pasteur’s focus on understanding why and how the germ transfer process occurs. 

Begin your innovation quest by determining what key tasks your target customers must accomplish in order to achieve their goals. Discover the details of the process that’s currently employed to fulfill those tasks, and why this process works for them, why it’s effective or valuable for them. Then, decide how that process can be improved. This is the essence of successful innovation. Clayton Christensen’s book, Competing Against Luck, provides a comprehensive description of this methodology.

What core customer processes might hold an innovation concept for your business?