Tom Hanks explains what happens when innovation goes wrong (4 minutes and 4 videos)

Well, actually, his character, Josh (Big), shows how too often we just don’t “get it”.

Brainstorming is a proven way to come up with new and innovative ideas. Or is it? Let’s look a little deeper to explain why we usually fail to meet Josh’s and our own customer’s needs.

If you assume that in order for your idea to succeed, you have to address a good number of unmet needs and if you assume that you need to meet a combination of at least 15 of those unmet needs, you have about a 1 in 14 million chance of coming up with the right combination on your first try. Here is the math:

If you assume that there are 3 competing ideas for each of 15 unmet customer needs in various combinations, then you are generating ideas on the order of three to the power of 15, which is 14 million ideas that you have to brainstorm and then sort through to find the best ones to pursue! Furthermore, in most markets, there are typically more than 15 unmet needs. This brings your chances of success to nearly zero!

In a previous post, I talk about how there are 430,000 new high-tech businesses started each year in the US. If you consider these two things together, you can understand why most startups and new product innovations have such a hard time succeeding.

This is the bad news, but the good news is coming in a few more paragraphs.

Abbreviated history of innovation

We have gone from product-centric where we build something and then look for a market to customer-centric where we talk to customers to get an idea of what their needs are to job-centric where we find the actual causes that drive purchase behavior.

Product vs. Customer vs. Job-based approaches

Product-based innovations – The Edsel, PC Jr., Zune, Segway, – Need I say more?

Customer-based innovation is a tremendous improvement over Product-based innovation and if done well can drive worthy breakthroughs. However, most companies go about it in a less that productive fashion. They ask their customers (usually inadvertently) to help them to innovate which is not the customer’s job nor are they particularly good at it.

There is a famous quote by Henry Ford who said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” If Steve Jobs asked customers what they wanted, we probably would have had a better Walkman versus the iPod and then the iPhone, etc.

I will get to Job-based innovation in the rest of the post.

What causes someone to buy?

I am 6’, 52-year-old, 180-pound male. I live just outside of Boston in an affluent town, I am married, have one child. I enjoy hockey, I read about 50 books/year and enjoy crossword puzzles (except NYT’s Friday and Saturday!). I drive a certain type of car, am a leadership coach and workout 2-3 times/week. That is a lot of information about me, however, none of these attributes alone or in combination caused me to buy a subscription to Harvard Business Review. What exactly did? This is where job-based innovation starts and many call it Jobs to Be Done (JTBD).

In JTBD, there are those that argue that what one is trying to make progress in one’s life with the purchases decisions one makes. They argue further that there is a Core functional job that one is looking to address with Related and Emotional jobs that also are part of the process. Here is a great video from Clayton Christensen to help illustrate:

Why brainstorming does not work (for innovation)

I believe strongly that we need to come at the problem in a different way. Brainstorming new ideas, while fun and rewarding in the short term, gives us little or no chance to come up with the right answer for creating new solutions.

The goal (and measurement) of success for brainstorming is typically to generate lots of ideas. In fact, the more ideas the better. We then vote on which ideas are the best to pursue, send those off to the designers and developers, wait for the first version to be built and then we proudly present it to our target customer (fingers crossed). It is an iterative process; idea -> design -> develop -> intro to customer -> get feedback -> change product -> rinse and repeat. It can take months, years or never to come up with something that moves the needle for your business and fully satisfies your customer.

Wouldn’t it be better to get it right the first time?

Jobs to be Done Example

As previously noted, the basic premise of JTBD is that there is a core functional job that has not changed much over time. Some examples of core functional jobs are “listen to music”, “do the laundry”, “sell a product”, “water the lawn”.

Let’s use “water the lawn” as our Core functional job example. Now that we have the Core functional job we must then uncover all of customer needs that surround that job.

Customer Need Example – “Water the Lawn”

We have been watering our lawns for centuries. Over time, we have used many different solutions to do this. Irrigation systems, sprinklers, nozzled-hose, hose and thumb to spray the water, etc. It is highly unlikely that the customer who was using a garden hose to water his/her lawn in the 19th century could ever have envisioned an irrigation system to do the job. However, they could tell you what job they were trying to accomplish – water the lawn.

They could probably articulate some of their desired outcomes as well – cover the lawn completely, minimize the chance of overwatering, minimize the chance of under-watering, minimize the chance of watering during, before or after a rainstorm, minimize the time it takes, minimize the discomfort the process inflicts on the waterer, increase the lushness of the lawn, increase the health of the lawn, etc. These and many more needs are the same today but some are even more important and urgent as we have more consistent drought conditions. These changes will affect the level of satisfaction we have in present solutions which could provide an opening for a new technology to address the unmet need just as Pandora and Spotify filled the gap left by MP3 players.

There are also emotional needs that we are looking to meet when watering a lawn such as pride of accomplishment, showing off to our neighbors, giving the kids a safer place to play, showing your family that you are taking care of them, etc.

It is the combination of these needs which usually range from 50-150 in total that is the basis for what solution we create for the market. If we pick the right ones for a big enough market then we have a much better chance of succeeding.

Importance and Satisfaction

The next step is to do some analysis. Now that we have identified all or most of our customer needs, we have to understand how important each one is to the customer and how much that need is being satisfied.

This information will give you a better sense of what combination of needs are of the highest value and least satisfied or unmet.

Once you have this information, you can begin to build a solution or set of solutions to meet a set of needs that will differentiate you from the competition by building something that your customers want even though they may have never asked you for it. This comprehensive approach also increases your chances of providing a total solution since you now know what the customer values most.

This process also helps you to understand how to market to and service your customers.

There is a lot more to know and I encourage you to look deeper as I think this approach can and will give you a significant market advantage.

To get you started, here is a video that gives a great example given by Tony Ulwick, the professed originator of JTBD, explaining how Bosch used JTBD to build a better version of the circular saw. The example starts at 4:00.

There are lots of other resources that you can look at to learn more about JTBD. Here are a few:

Two books I recommend are –  Competing against Luck and Jobs to be Done – Theory to Practice.

Here is another video from Bob Moesta (another practitioner of JTBD – he applied it in at least two of his wildly successful businesses) who explains it to a class at Harvard Business School. (You can see Clay Christensen in the back).

If you are interested in learning more or talking to experts, please let me know.

Thanks for reading!

Be Exceptional!


I look forward to your comments. If you found this post useful, please share, comment and/or like.

Published by Bill Flynn

Gazelles Member Advisor and early stage startup specialist with a proven track record with 16 Boston-based startups (9 to date with 5 successful outcomes, advisor to 7 others); SMB to Fortune 500 companies. 20+ years of Senior Sales, Marketing and GM experience in industries including mobile advertising, security, digital advertising, e-commerce and IT. Core Competencies: Player/Coach, Metrics-driven, Execution-based philosophy, Life-long learner

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