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People are often confounded about innovation, claiming that you can’t program ideas. The reality is that you can, by applying focused innovation techniques, and it all starts with understanding your customers’ needs. You have competitors—everybody does. So, what makes customers buy from you instead of them? Answering that question is the first step to focused innovation.

Who Are You?

This isn’t an existential question—it’s the core of successful innovation. What is the problem you are solving for your customer? It’s not technology, and it’s not bringing a new paradigm to the market. Don’t bog yourself down in buzzwords and marketing speak. That’s the sure path to conformity.

Use the Mom Test

Try the “Mom test.” If your mother wouldn’t understand what you do, you aren’t there yet.

There’s a fundamental issue that you address, and you should be able to state it in plain language and in fewer than 25 words. This isn’t an easy task. It may take days or weeks before you are able to do it. If it doesn’t, you are either very good or fooling yourself. This statement should become your “North Star.”

Create a Map

Companies usually believe they know how customers use their products or the problem they solve. Some companies believe this without ever having listened to a customer or watched them use the product in the real world. It’s even more eye-opening to watch your competitors’ customers use their products.

After talking and watching people using the product, you should be able to identify the role your product plays in a process. You should also be able to map the process from beginning to end and understand the customers’ goals.

Develop a Strategy

There are several ways to create an innovation strategy for your product once you understand it from the customer’s point of view.

  • Simplify using the product
  • Eliminate product gaps
  • Increase performance
  • Enhance the footprint
  • Eliminate non-value-added process steps
  • Reduce product cost
  • Shorten the delivery cycle

Which of these fits in with your 25-word product description? Actually, that’s a trick question. They all should.

Use the Lean Approach

Manufacturers are familiar with the concepts of lean—value stream mapping, continuous improvement and eliminating waste. They use these concepts masterfully when it comes to their own processes, but often ignore them when it comes to their customers’ day-to-day.

If you’ve taken the time to learn the customer process and how customers use your product to attain their objectives, you’re half-way to focused innovation. Apply your “North Star” and use the lean tools and you should be able to identify several areas ripe for innovation. Then, prioritize and tackle each one.

Here Be Dragons

Don’t let lurking dragons get you. It’s easy to lose your way if you take your eyes off the North Star. Watch your map and stay true to your North Star—which remember, is based on providing customer benefits.

Many companies fall into the trap of focusing on their own benefits when it comes to innovation. While it’s a bonus if your innovation idea helps reduce your cost, it’s only going to excite the customer if you share the wealth. The same holds true for simplifying your manufacturing process. Great. But will that new-found productivity translate into shorter delivery cycles or lower prices?

Lead the Market

Market leadership is a popularity contest and it has strict rules. Fill a need better, faster or cheaper than the competition. Identify a previously unknown need and deliver a solution before anyone else. When you develop your go-to-market plan and messaging, focus on that.

Customers don’t care that this product is improved over previous versions unless it helps them. Don’t say “better than the previous version.” Customers translate that into “It used to be lousy but now it’s less lousy.”

The customer doesn’t care about cool new technology—they care about how that technology makes their lives easier. Forgo the acronyms and buzzwords. Use active language rather than wishy-washy passive voice. Tell the customer exactly how the product will solve a problem or improve their day-to-day existence and do it in plain language. Keep it simple, and focused innovation will lead you to the market leadership you seek.

Learn more about the ways in which innovation can be harnessed and better utilized when and where it’s needed most.