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Aligning Trends With Innovation Strategy

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Aligning Trends With Innovation Strategy

Recently I stressed the importance of looking outside your organization to bring in bold ideas and help you peel off any institutional blinders you may have acquired. Those aren’t the only reasons to keep an eye on the outside world, though. Looking beyond your walls helps you spot the trends that are affecting how your customers behave, what else they’ll be able to buy, and how the ecosystem that your solution plugs into may be evolving.

Longtime food and beverage executive Christine Dahm helped explain how to tell whether the shifts you’re seeing are going to become trends worth acting on. “Trends are different from fads because they’re multifaceted. There are two or three different things pointing to their existence, often focused on resolving some of those really important jobs or pain points.” By understanding what customers are trying to do, where they’re frustrated, and how technologies from across industries are evolving, you’ll have a strong grasp on where your own industry will be several years down the road.

Companies that are able to envision the future are better equipped to create breakthrough innovations, but they’re also well positioned to make incremental adjustments that can make a big difference to the bottom line. Marriott recently noticed that its one-size-fits-all hotel restaurants—though consistent and reliable—weren’t catching the eye of younger travelers. With smartphones able to point out a number of highly rated nearby options, travelers were seeking out specialized local fare, no longer feeling confined to the safe hotel choice. Technology enabled travelers to satisfy the jobs that were important to them—such as patronizing local businesses and trying interesting new flavors—in a way that travelers of years past could not. In response, Marriott departed from traditional industry practices to launch a food and beverage incubator, giving aspiring restauranteurs and bartenders a chance to pitch bold new concepts. Winning start-ups are given up to $50,000, guidance, and a space inside a Marriott hotel. These trendy new locations are designed to help travelers satisfy the jobs that they are starting to fulfill elsewhere, thus keeping valuable meal spending inside the hotel ecosystem.

The Los Angeles company iRise largely established the industry of software visualization, in which IT analysts can create interactive prototypes of how software will function before it is actually coded—a significant improvement over the traditional method of simply keeping lists of desired features. While it continues to lead that industry in many ways today, it saw that the enterprise IT departments it sold to were still struggling with figuring out exactly how their software should function before committing resources to building it. They had largely accepted the need to prototype before development, but they were still struggling to establish a cohesive approach to defining the overall requirements for their software projects. It seemed the underserved jobs to be done were no longer just about prototyping but elsewhere in the process as well.

A focused initiative to understand marketplace trends led to surprising insights. They found that the shift toward using Agile development practices—through which coding occurred in rapidly iterative cycles—combined with the maturing discipline of user experience design and the need to retain some of their traditional list-keeping methods, was conspiring to cause these organizations to comprehensively reexamine how best to define their software projects. As EVP of customer success Stephen Brickley told us, “These organizations were still using a hodge-podge of methods to track their requirements before they used our software. The real underserved jobs were now earlier in the process, as there was an often chaotic process to determine what specifically the software should do.” iRise shifted to embrace this opportunity and redoubled its efforts to tie the visualization of software function into a systematic means of tracking requirements. Had it not listened to the market without preconceptions and instead focused as most companies do on validating existing ideas, it likely would not have ended up with this growth opportunity.

The longer individuals spend at a company, the more faithful they become to the organization’s creeds and practices. Creativity may slowly fade away, only to be replaced by excuses like, “That’s how we’ve always done it” or “We tried it before and it didn’t work.” Inviting outsiders to give input as you go through the innovation process helps bring in fresh ideas and keep those excuses at bay. Furthermore, looking beyond the walls of your organization helps you keep tabs on the emerging trends that are important to your customers, allowing you to stay ahead of what they’ll be asking for.

If you’re accidentally stumbling across great ideas from other industries, then you’re doing it wrong. Achieving even a modest amount of organic growth typically means bringing in substantial sums in new revenues. Your innovation process should have regular ways of bringing in new ideas and outside perspectives.

As you gather customer insights and vet the solutions you come up with, certain biases will naturally affect the decision-making process. Those biases tend to come from over-relying on in-hand information and being overconfident in information that is either deeply entrenched or particularly recent. Adding safety nets to your innovation process and asking outsiders to double-check key assumptions can help ensure that your decisions end up being the right ones.

While open innovation programs can be a good way to bring in new viewpoints and ideas, smaller-scale practices and policies can be just as effective.

Customers expect companies to design products that coincide with current trends. Understanding the new ways that people will be able to satisfy important jobs will help you uncover important trends without relying on a lot of guesswork.

More of this approach is featured in my book JOBS TO BE DONE: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.

***Looking for a great holiday gift for co-workers or clients, send them the new branding book “FOLLOW the FEELING: Brand Building in a Noisy World” today, written by Branding Strategy Insider Kai D. Wright.

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