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The Secret Ingredient for True Innovation: Listening

By: Anna Stallmann, Vice President of Communications, Nahigian Strategies


Innovation is the lifeblood of today’s best companies’ success. It can determine its success or failure and ultimately drives stock prices, which brings the topic to the forefront for leaders and boardroom discussions. Today, every company aspires to be innovative. According to anAccenture study, 93% of enterprise-level executives thought innovation was critical to their businesses, and 63% of these companies went as far as appointing Chief Innovation Officers to drive innovation. Yet, with numerous resources dedicated to innovation processes – from start-ups to established enterprises – is the business community at large truly keeping pace with innovation?

How are some companies using innovation to grow their reach and deliver unimaginable experiences and products to their customers – while others, aspiring to be innovative, fall flat? The de-facto assumption often resorts to technology – innovative companies have the latest technology and are digital-first. But in an era where everything is connected, does technology really drive innovation?

Take for example the classic example of Blockbuster – who controlled the video rental market for over a decade. From their internal perspective, Blockbuster was keeping up with innovation and responding to market changes. It had moved beyond VHS offerings to include DVDs and Blu-ray disks. And as movie rentals slowed, it brought in convenience store items ranging from candy and soda to games and other impulse purchases.

But the fundamental issue for Blockbuster was that its innovation was fueled by its own ideas and perception of the market – not those of its customer base. When presented with the option to acquire Netflix for just $50 million, the CEO passed on it as he did not see the shifting consumer needs at play. Could a Chief Innovation Officer have guided him otherwise – or was the answer elsewhere?

Listening to and observing consumers and user behavior drives true innovation – not internal whiteboard sessions led by Chief Innovation Officers inside closed boardrooms. If Blockbuster listened to its consumers or engaged with them, they would have observed the desire for flexibility in rental periods and convenience of delivery to one’s home, and ultimately the elimination of fixed costs which could be achieved under that model. Yet important to note, Netflix was not successful because of its technology – but rather because of its adaptive nature to consumer needs: shifting from a mail-delivery service to a live-streaming service within the course of a decade and now producing its own content.

Innovation is not a synonym for technology. True innovation is about doing something new and responding to consumer needs while developing better processes and delivering improved products and services to market. Yes, often innovation can be the newest technology, but more often than not – it’s a consumer idea. Take for example the notion of pre-slicing fruit for sale in a grocery store. Not only did grocers multiply their profits, they made their consumer lives easier for those short on time.

So next time you consider your roadmap ahead for innovation – ask yourself the following questions before you proceed. It’s not always about the what or the how – but rather the who and the why.

  • Who is using my services and products?
  • Who might want to use my services and products – but we haven’t reached yet?
  • Does our business market still exist for our customer base?
  • Why would a consumer pick my product or service over my competitor?
  • Why does a consumer need us in their life?

If you can establish yourself as a truly trusted brand by your consumers that listens to their needs – you are establishing yourself as a truly innovative company and your customers will stick with you. Innovation is always attainable for those who aspire to it – you just need to accept the fact that the answer won’t necessarily be sitting around your boardroom table.

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