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Seeds of Innovation – Part 2

Posted on December 20th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


In my previous blog I explored the “fuzzy front-end” of innovation and discussed the somewhat mysterious process for ideation practiced across much of the chemical industry.  A very popular technique I covered is internal brainstorming using cross-functional teams and I shared my thoughts on the pros/cons and the ample room for improving this technique.  While internal brainstorming is highly popular, I concluded that ideation is best done with multiple parallel processes that get insight from diverse sources and create as many innovation “seeds” as possible.  Internal brainstorming can certainly be one of those processes, but other more market- and customer-centric processes and sources should also be considered.

In this blog I want to explore these other processes and sources.

Finding Other Seeds to Sow

I previously shared a useful framework to break innovation down into the categories of “evolutionary” (incremental short-term development) and “revolutionary” (step-change longer-term research).  In particular, I find this framework useful in thinking about the changing market dynamics that can create unmet needs and the likely sources to uncover these dynamics.

Evolutionary ideation is usually much more focused on discrete products and applications and generally requires less “creative” input and skews heavily toward direct customer inputs.  Conversely, revolutionary innovation is often complex and more open-ended with multiple drivers of unmet needs.  The time and investment is substantial and requires much more thought given to potential risks and return on investment. Ideation for revolutionary innovation should come from wide-ranging sources and processes.

Seeds of innovation part 2


Customers Know Best

There should be no dispute that customers know their needs better than any internal expert.  John Russell, former Vice President of Harley Davidson, said this best:

“ The more you engage with customers, the clearer things become and the easier it is to determine what you should be doing.”

The challenge is engaging customers in a way that is focused, insightful and actionable.

A couple of best practices for engaging customers include:

“Voice-of-Customer”(VOC) interviews – There are many methodologies and techniques for organizing this approach including “discovery” interviews described by Dan Adams in “New Product Blueprinting.”   I suggest integrating these interviews as a routine part of selling to and supporting customers.  This could be as simple as training sales and technical service personnel on how to conduct innovation interviews during sales calls and customer meetings.

Customer Advisory Councils and Forums – Councils and forums are particularly powerful when a group of customers (or potential customers) come together as part of a focus group.  Focus groups are excellent for getting diverse opinions and insight from a small group(6-8)  of customers (or even customer’s customers) and creating debate and group dynamics that gain insights that wouldn’t have been available from individual interviews.  You obviously have to be careful bringing customers together to prevent anti-trust concerns and creating awkwardness among competitors.  It is also critical to prevent the discussion from becoming too tactical or too general. I highly recommend any customer focus groups be run by a professional third-party moderator.

Trade shows and conventions are great opportunities to conduct these sessions as they are natural collection points of customers.  Properly planned, the focus groups can be combined with entertainment events to further build customer relationships.

I have also seen companies set up formal standing panels of loyal customers that meet periodically to provide structured input to ideation.  These “councils” can be organized to get on-going market sensing that can drive innovation over long periods of time.

Other  Sources

Other sources of ideation ideas to consider, especially for revolutionary innovation, include:

Expert Networks – In the last decade internet-based matching services have emerged to match innovators with experts in a particular market or subject matter.  These networks are particularly useful for understanding new markets where you do not have pre-established customer relationships.  Examples of expert networks include Gerson Lehrman Group and Guidepoint.

Industry Panels – Industry panels are similar to customer councils but use industry experts, consultants, academia and government officials to provide a broad view of a market or subject matter.  Conducted as focus groups, these sessions allow innovators to gain insight on customer needs unrelated to your company’s current product markets.  An especially interesting approach is provided by Paragon Development located in Hamden, CT.  Paragon has its own network of panelists on most subject matters related to the chemical industry and can provide a turnkey project including participant travel and focus group facilities.

Proprietary Studies – Another source of ideas is custom studies developed by consultants and research firms with specific objectives for gathering data and customer input.  I find these studies can be very powerful since they are conducted by unbiased third-parties who may have unique access to existing and potential customers.  Properly done they can synthesize market dynamics and customer needs into a more user-friendly form to feed internal brainstorming.  However, you cannot expect ideation as an output – consultants and research firms will never know your capabilities enough to generate well-thought ideas.

In summary, there is no single magical process for ideation and probably never will be.  So, draw from many sources and listen closely to your customers and the seeds will grow.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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