We Cracked the Innovation Code = Desire + Vision + Human Nature

Innovation = 1/3 Desire + 1/3 Nature + 1/3 Vision

The godfather of disruptive innovation, Clayton Christensen, wrote The Innovators Dilemma – the seminal book on innovation – back in 1997- it is a timeless work that deftly describes what happens to companies that don’t innovate, or innovate quickly enough.

However, since then, we have seen many more books on innovation, and none of them have the heft of the original.

His latest book, Competing Against Luck, a few years old now, introduces a concept called “Jobs To Be Done.”

I thought, hmm, that’s interesting – how is this a new take on innovation? It turns out; it isn’t – the “jobs to be done” concept seems to take the opposite track and hew closely to more recent literature which focuses on the customer.

The big downside of the concept of disruptive innovation concept which he introduced had trouble with validation in the corporate world.  Many of us innovators developed disruptive innovations that may or may not have been in the customer’s best interest. This was one of the main points of the Innovators Dilemma – innovative new products and services typically do not serve the same market that the core business does – its a new market, yet to emerge or has only begun to emerge.

In the Innovators Dilemma, Christensen discussed the hard drive space and how companies in that space failed to anticipate the desire for a smaller, faster drive since there was no demand for them. In the end, once the products were developed and hit the market, demand was created through the availability of the product. He also chronicles Kodak and its demise due to digital photography, a failure to properly capitalize on a technology that they themselves invented to maintain market share.

Those models are well known and talked about repeatedly and regularly in the innovation space. But are they still valid?

One wonders when one comes across Christensen’s “Jobs To Be Done” concept.

In this concept, the customer is brought into the product development conversation early (as in agile software project management), and they are asked to help to deliver a list of “Jobs To Be Done.” Is this any different than merely a well-structured customer feedback mechanism? It seems to be trying to address the failure of the disruptive innovation model by attempting to bring ideation closer to customer desires.

The only issue is – what does the customer truly want? I mean, what do they actually want – outside of the context of your business? This is one of the reasons why I feel that there is a mismatch between supply and demand – the customer is looking for solutions, and the business can only provide solutions in the context of themselves. The company continues to see itself with a specific identity when the customer does not typically care about the companies identity – they just need something done.

While the customer is looking for a multi-pronged solution to a problem, the company is typically only providing a solution concerning itself. Are you confused yet?

Here’s an example:

I like to use the travel business because its an excellent example of how we’ve gone from intermediation to disintermediation and back again. Back before the internet, most trips were booked by agents – one would have a travel agent that they trusted – someone who maybe first started by asking you several questions about the kind of trip you’d like, then book the right trip for you. With subsequent trips, he or she would take your feedback and continue to refine your preferences and eventually would book you the perfect trip. All you had to do was to pick up the phone and talk to them; then, they would book it all for you.

The advent of the internet brought empowerment to the customer – now the customer themselves had to spend tons of time educating themselves on the best way to book travel, then book it themselves, not knowing if they got the best deal or not. Eventually, travel search engines helped in these tasks, but we still had to trust them to give us the best price. Then the cycle started: the Hilton website begat Hotwire, which begat Trivago. How many aggregators and levels of aggregators do we need? How can we even trust the aggregators? Couple that with the application of revenue management systems on the merchant side, and the poor customer is left holding the bag. A simple search for a one night stay in Washington DC (see image) begets over 800 options and leads to four more services to choose from. I just want a nice hotel close to my meeting, and I don’t want to spend hours and hours finding one.

No wonder travel agents are coming back into fashion. And rightly so, because we made a fundamental mistake when we first democratized travel – we assumed that the customer wanted the power to book their travel. Maybe some did, but the vast majority of people would just prefer to have the perfect trip dropped in their laps.

The question is – did anyone ask the customer what they wanted? No, we assumed that the customer wanted more power over the travel booking process – and we gave it to them – and eventually made it worse. Our mistake wasn’t to empower them to book travel on their own – our error was not to apply human nature.

Anyone who has read Dan Ariely can attest – customers don’t know what they want – and if you ask them – they are likely just to make something up.

So how does this fit into the “Job To Be Done”?

Simple – we had to ask customers what they want – but at the same time – we need to take a critical eye to these responses and merge them with basic tenets for human nature – like the fact that most humans are lazy and would prefer to do less work and not more. If you think about it, we need to look at customer requirements through the lens of human nature, no matter what they are telling us that they want.

The real answer is a meld of their desires, human nature, and a singular vision. Did Steve Jobs consult customers when he invented the iPhone, arguably innovation with the most significant impact on our society? No. The iPhone was conceived in secret, a distillation of both assumed customers’ desires, human nature (simplicity), and Jobs (and his teams) vision. So, where does that leave us as innovators?

While the JTBD model of asking what the customer wants has some merit, it cannot be the only basis for successful innovation. The successful innovation formula must also include vision and account for human nature.

In short, the customer is only really 33% right – another 33% is human nature, and another 33% has got to be visionary.

Innovation is – what the customer wants – human nature and a vision. Anything else falls short.


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