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Real Innovation Starts With Customers, Not Companies

Who is more likely to come up with a really innovative idea? The folks working in your R&D lab or a customer trying to solve a problem out in the real world?

To most people, innovation sounds like a dark art practiced by nerdy inventors toiling away in labs at all hours of the day and night until they have a Eureka moment that unleashes the next greatest thing since sliced bread.

All the better if that Eureka moment was actually an accident, as in the story of the 3M Post-It note. Scientist Spencer Silver, while attempting to create a super-strong adhesive, instead created the opposite: a low-tack, reusable pressure sensitive adhesive. Fifty-odd years later, its use in a million ideation sessions only perpetuates its iconic status in the annals of innovation.

It’s a process that’s all too easily mythologized. We can probably blame Thomas Edison and his experiments with the light bulb for that.

Go to the Edge

While some innovations are born inside company walls, the reality is that most of them are the result of what we call ‘edge cases’. An edge case is when ordinary people are faced with a problem that inspires them to reimagine the tools they have at their disposal to solve it.

Take mountain biking, for example. As early as 1896, the US military experimented with using bicycles for off-road transport. Between 1951 and 1956, a group of French cyclists called the Velo Cross Club Parisien modified their bikes for off-road cycling. In 1953 American cyclist John Finlay Scott put together his ‘Woodsie Bike’ using a Schwinn frame, balloon tires, flat handlebars and derailleur gears. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of Marin County riders known as the Larkspur Canyon Gang used 1930s-40s vintage single-speed balloon tire bikes on Mt. Tamalpais. Then in 1973 the Velo Club Tamalpais collected old balloon-tire bikes, stripping off extraneous parts and equipping them with high-performance vintage components. While mainstream designers were focused on making conventional bikes more comfortable for use on city streets, the two-wheeled downhillers - what innovation scholar Eric von Hippel would call ‘lead users’ - were busy hacking their way to a whole new sport.

It wasn’t until 1978 that manufacturers released the first purpose-built mountain bikes.

Here we have a situation where the innovation that spawned a new industry did not come from a company R&D department but from many different people operating on the fringes of conventional usage, pursuing their passion for radical new ways to ride. Edge cases like these are never found inside the walls of your company. You need to get out of the office to find them.

Scan the Horizon

So how do you do that? Here’s where evidence-based innovation (EDI) offers a path to discovery. A key tool in the EDI woodshed is scanning. Scanning is about getting past the problem right in front of you and gazing at the horizon in search of edge cases. It’s about looking at potential trends as opposed to ones that are already underway, because by the time a trend is noticed, the opportunity is already missed. This type of scanning tags interesting leads for deeper in-field research and explores their value as inputs to the innovation process.

It’s critical to look outside the category you are attempting to innovate. One of the most productive methods for unearthing new ideas is to juxtapose things, processes, activities or ideas that are not normally found together to discover a whole new solution that would never have emerged on its own. This is what’s commonly referred to as thinking outside the box – only in this case, it’s more like looking outside the box and then combining what you find there to see what happens.

Stay Ahead of the Curve

Now that you know where to look, it’s not only important to check in every now and then, but also to maintain key contacts and relationships with the niche groups and users you find there, like the off-piste cyclists mentioned above. These are the influencers.

Scanning for potential edge cases and niche players is very useful in forward-looking strategic exercises. Imagine what a bike manufacturer could have done had it discovered that niche of proto-mountain bikers years ahead of time.

The main point here is that edge cases and niche players are always ahead of the curve. So instead of bashing your head against the company walls in search of a breakthrough, all you have to do is find those niche players and edge cases and let them lead you to opportunities for innovation. And we can help you do that.

Photo of Dustin Johnston-Jewell

Written By:

Dustin Johnston-Jewell