Innovation Snack 2 – Prioritization Is the Enemy of Open Mindedness

It’s not a seven course meal.
It’s just a snack.
You can consume it in a minute or so.
But, it brings the flavor!

Prioritizing is often used as a way to become more productive and efficient. For example, focusing on the needs of your big customers can bring you a quick and sizable return.

But in innovation work, ignoring the needs of other customer segments can keep you stuck. Creativity depends on a variety of input from a wide variety of customers. You miss the new trends, you miss how to help new segments grow to be tomorrow’s big customers, and you risk becoming too closed minded to see new opportunities.

Being focused and efficient can provide a short term return, but being open minded fosters the creativity needed for a long term innovation return.

For a thorough guide to innovation techniques that will help you conceive and invent products that customers love, buy Steve’s e-book Made From Scratch.

Innovation Snack 1 – Holy Grails

It’s not a seven course meal.
It’s just a snack.
You can consume it in a minute or so.
But, it brings the flavor!

What does your industry think can never change – but wishes would change?

I have seen innovation teams directly attack an industry’s Holy Grail. And succeed. In one industry, all competitors had thought for decades that one product category’s price had to be based solely on the product’s power. A design team discovered how to solve multiple other product problems, created a brand new product experience, and completely shifted how customers perceived value.

Sometimes the toughest challenges provide the best innovation return!

For a thorough guide to innovation techniques that will help you conceive and invent products that customers love, buy Steve’s e-book Made From Scratch.

Small Business Solutions with Attorney Kyle Gough

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed the privilege of appearing on Kyle Gough’s podcast, Small Business Solutions. We talked about …

  1. Small business innovation and the pandemic.
  2. The Fort Wayne entrepreneur community.
  3. My ebook, Made From Scratch

You can listen to the podcast here.

Kyle specializes in startup and entrepreneurial law, offering a fresh innovative approach tailored exactly to the needs of startup entrepreneurs (although he certainly also assists firms of all types and sizes). Find him at Kyle Gough Law. Follow his Small Business Solutions podcast here.

Innovation Meets Rehab

Steve in rehab
Steve in Rehab

Those of you who know me personally know that I had a freak accident, broke 2 elbows and 1 knee, and have been in rehab for weeks (with plenty more to go). This morning as I coped with my body not working the way it used to, I thought about how that applies to business innovators.

As unexpected change occurs in your markets, customers, operations, business setting, or competitive landscape, your old ways can stop working – triggering the need for change and innovation.

Your business solution can borrow much from the world of physical rehab. Here are some lessons I’ve learned so far as I change my behavior to cope with the accident.

Heal First

Make sure your fundamentals are solid before you start to change. I can’t bear weight on my arms. I have to heal my elbows first. Once they are healed, I can start to work on improving the upper body strength I’ll need.

Your business may need to make some adjustments to bring your operations and financials in line before you initiate a new innovation campaign. Turnaround professionals know this intuitively, and they also know this is emotionally hard for business owners. But, without healing first, businesses trying to innovate can just make their operations worse, just as I’d wreck my elbows even more.

Get Help

For the time being, I live in a rehab facility. A nursing staff looks after my health, sending me back to my surgeon when necessary. Aides help me do the daily activities I can’t do for myself. Physical therapists help me reboot my broken joints. All are skilled, trained professionals. They help with the very basics (since I am non-weight-bearing, I can’t move myself) and do that in a professional, medically safe way. Beyond that they have plans in place that they know will work to rehab me. If I tried to do any of this on my own, I’d fail. I don’t have the knowledge or experience.

The same hold true for businesses. Experienced mentors, coaches. and turnaround professionals can help you. It’s what they do. Get their help.

Use What You Have

I now eat with my left hand (I’m right handed). My left elbow has more range of motion than my right. Even though I have professionals to help, a number one rehab goal is to begin doing things for yourself. At the very first, when I could only move my arms inches, I was fed. But to rehab, I knew i had to feed myself. It was clear that my right arm wasn’t going to get there any time soon. So I worked on using my left. I used what would work. It wasn’t pretty or traditional, but it worked.

In your business, you may need to find new ways or work-arounds. Look around you, find the resources you have, remember back to your early entrepreneurial days when you didn’t have so many resources available, and try something different.


Every day I do stretches to improve the range of motion in my elbows and knee. Sometimes the therapists assist with the basic stretches and invent devious new exercises that stretch me and exercise my core. Each day I walk (assisted) a little farther. Little by little I could see how the small improvements added up and allowed me to do something I couldn’t yesterday. My professional help could always see it before I could, by the way.

Your business’s strength and flexibility will not make huge leaps overnight. But huge improvement will come over time – in small increments. As long as you do the work and make the stretch, that is. And especially with the help of professionals who know the right “stretches” and milestones to look for.

Celebrate Small Successes

I remember the wonderful feeling when I put that first bit of food in my mouth by myself with my left hand. I remember the first time i could touch my nose with my right thumb, the first time I could take a t-shirt off and put it back on by myself. And yes, I did post about them to social media. The encouraging feedback I received was wonderful and spurred me on (thanks, everybody). Update – since I started writing this, I can now feed myself nearly all of the time with my right hand. Small successes build on one another.

When your business starts to see some successes from change or innovation, your friends and customer base will provide encouragement. So should you! Make a point to be aware of the changes you are achieving, no matter how small. Besides being your own cheerleader, you will be surprised about how many people (customers, vendors, partners) care about your business!

Take Time

Rehab timelines are often measured by the weeks or months it will take to “get you out of here and back home.” Friends wish you a speedy recovery. I tell them I don’t want that. I don’t want to go home until I can do it quite safely. Healed enough and strong enough that I won’t just re-injure myself. I want to live with the professional rehab staff until that time comes – why wouldn’t I?

My long term goal is very different. I have decided to take a full year to build my strength, flexibility, balance, and cardio to the point where I surpass how active I was when I was injured. I was in decent shape then (body weight fitness, light dumbbells, and 2-4 miles of walking each day). Now I see that a commitment to rehab will morph at some point into a commitment to training. I don’t want to call it quits just when rehab has made me somewhat functional. I want a brand new stronger me. I already know the equipment I’ll need, programs I’ll join, and people who I want to help me as I train.

The same should be true for your business. Your goal should be to build an even-more powerful company – not just find a new way to “get by”. At some point you will feel that rehab is done – and that is exactly when you will make the shift from rehab to training (shameless plug – I do offer innovation technique training). Like me, you might start planning at the very start for what you’ll need to carry your company far beyond what it was when you started your innovation meets rehab challenge! Good luck to you!

4 Magic Questions For Innovation

Photo by jasper benning on Unsplash

Made From Scratch describes a process for conducting one-on-one customer interviews to discover what customers value relative to a problem, need, or product. The goals are threefold.

  • To develop a deep understanding of what customers value and why.
  • To use that understanding to help you see insights into the key value-producing design challenges you face.
  • To apply those insights and solve those challenges as you design your new product solution.

Good one-on-one interviews use a series of open ended questions that can’t be answered by “yes” or “no” and are designed to encourage the customer to share their thoughts. These types of questions work well, but it is very common for customers to tell you the “what” but not the “why”.

These 4 magic questions will drive you toward hearing “why”.

  1. Why?
  2. How?
  3. Oh?
  4. Tell Me More.

Understanding the “why” lets you understand how the customer value is created. Sometimes you are using the 4 magic questions simply to learn more.

Customer: “The middle option is the best.”
Bad Interviewer: Writes down – “middle option is best” and moves on.
Good Interviewer: “Why?”
Customer: “It’s the only one that both fits in my smallest bag, but also has a large enough keyboard to actually type on.”

Customer: “Your <competitor’s model X> is the best.”
Bad Interviewer: Writes down – “likes competitor’s model X” and moves on.
Good Interviewer: “How is that?”
Customer: “It’s really easy to carry”
Bad Interviewer: Writes down – “portability” and moves on.
Good Interviewer: “Tell me more. How is it easy to carry?”
Customer: “The tie-downs make it easy to secure it to my bike.”

Sometimes you are using the 4 magic questions to avoid a personal bias. This is a little more subtle to detect. Because of your bias, you may think you understand the “why”, but your interpretation may not be true for your customer. Be careful of writing down an answer that isn’t exactly what the customer said.

Customer: “The battery needs to be better”
Biased Interviewer: Writes down “battery needs to last longer” and moves on.
Good Interviewer: “Oh?”
Customer: “It should be much lighter and less bulky.”

You’ll notice that from the examples, that customers can use words like “better” or “best” or “I like”. Or they can describe a feature like “easy to carry” that stops short of telling you “how” or “why”. Until you ask more, answers like these don’t give you a “why” or a clear product design challenge.

How far should you carry this line of questioning? In the quality world, they use a process called “5 Why’s” so that they can drill down until they understand a problem’s root cause, not just its symptoms. You may not go that far, but when you find yourself hearing a preferred feature (the “what”), but not hearing how it benefits the customer (the “why”), you owe it yourself and your design team to invoke a little magic.

Designing for Customers

This post originally appeared in my feed.

The Lean Startup / Business Model Canvas / Customer Development process for developing a new product (and business) has become widely used, with well-documented techniques. On the other hand, innovation (starting with new product invention and early product development) is still sometimes seen as a serendipitous happening, not a process.

  1. Innovation is very much a process, with its own set of well-documented techniques.
  2. The two processes, innovation process and startup process, fit together nicely — and together produce superior new products.

I recently had the pleasure of presenting at Startup Week Fort Wayne. During an hour I introduced the audience to the base concept you’ll read here — and then dove into the details of how to apply the innovation techniques (subjects for later posts).

We’ll start by laying out both processes.

This is admittedly a very simplified portrayal, but it highlights the commonalities between the two processes. Notice how the blocks are the same, but just not in the same order! The two processes, at least in my opinion, address the same issues and do the same things.

Innovation process (as I practiced it) is very front loaded with research. Learn what customers value, walk in their shoes, understand their challenges — and then start designing. Startup process has always wanted to rush the front end, make some assumptions, quickly get something that fits those assumptions into the market, and then validate directly with market feedback and iteration.

Critics of innovation process would say that it wastes time with ideas instead of getting to market where one can gather direct feedback about a new product. Critics of these entrepreneurship processes would say that launching without thorough research produces naive products that can miss huge opportunities to add value.

Both processes are right. Both processes are valuable. Both processes seek to design and create value for customers. If we combine them, here’s what we get.

Which leads to this.

The two processes together create one tight process that learns customer values directly from the customers and designs an initial product based on that solid knowledge, but then also continues to gather direct customer feedback to ensure and improve value creation.

In a little more depth, it looks like this.

If this looks a bit like what you already do when you create new products or businesses, then kudos.

Design Sprints Aren’t Inefficient Enough for Some Innovation Projects

This post originally appeared on my feed. Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash.

Years ago I worked together with Ron Sears of the Design Consortium, a small boutique innovation consultancy that helped firms create the next generation of products critical to their company’s success. The process that Ron had developed took time and resources. Short projects took weeks. Important projects took months. Field resources worked in pairs gathering first hand stakeholder input. Project teams consisted of up to a dozen people over the project’s duration, with at least twice that many more drawn in for specific exercises.

Ron had been applying the process for years when I joined him. Originally, I worried that we were too inefficient and that more efficiency could provide our clients better value. One day I asked Ron, “If we quit doubling up interview teams and shorten our project length, we will still be able to get some innovation done for our clients. We will be much more cost effective and able to do more projects for them for the same amount of fees.”

Ron patiently explained to me, the newbie innovation guy, why that would be a huge disservice to our clients. Innovation, he explained, requires a level of inefficiency.

  1. More people on the project = more minds capable of aha moments.
  2. 2 people conducting an interview or observation = more raw information seen or heard. [We actually tested this. We counted the number of interview comments heard only by one of two people listening to the same interview — on average having a second listener produced 30% more raw information.]
  3. Truncated time = less raw information learned and less time for aha moments to occur.

Our clients expected us to help them produce a breakthrough next generation product — and that was much more important than optimizing a process for efficiency. Breakthrough solutions come at a cost. They require work. They require effort and investment. I couldn’t argue. I knew that Ron’s innovation process worked well and had created documented breakthrough results. It was a lesson I learned and have never forgotten.

But I secretly still wished there was a more efficient way. Years later, when I learned that Google’s Design Sprints are one of the most popular new innovations in the innovation space, I thought maybe they had solved the efficiency problem. After all, a five-day process compared to weeks or months certainly is a timesaver and resource saver. I’ve learned the sprint process, and I love it. But, if I were designing the next generation product upon which the lifeblood of my company mattered, I’d still use a more inefficient process (and I’m guessing that the creators of design sprints would probably agree — based on how a sprint gets narrowed in scope early on to accommodate the 5-day structure).

Here’s why.

Over the years working with Ron, I generalized how process-based innovation occurs.

  1. Solutions come from insight.

The sexiest part of any innovation project is the aha moment. The aha may not even be a solution. It might be an insight into the problem. It might be an insight into a mistaken assumption that has worked for decades to hold a product back. It might be a new insight into what really drives a customer segment. Some of the best insights are about how different parts of the problem are related.

Give me enough insights into what is important about a product (or what needs to be fixed), and I can design ideation projects (maybe design sprints!) that produce solutions. Without those insights, ideation solutions are mere uninformed guesses. The more informed your potential solutions are, the better.

2. Insight comes from understanding.

I’m not going to say that thoroughness of understanding linearly produces insight. But, when you are creating a deep understanding, your mind is ripe for the nonlinear aha moment to appear. Feed your mind lots of quasi-focused information and it sees patterns emerge and makes interesting new connections.

Perhaps I should really say that insight comes from “seeking” understanding. There is nothing quite like recapping a day of stakeholder interviews and observations with your design team and hearing, “OK, wait — so this was so cool — midway through the stakeholder interview it dawned on me what one of the main challenges are that our customers face. It is really the contradiction between [this need] and [that need]. Solve that and we win big!”

This level of insight is similar to Peter Thiel’s famous question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” Deep insights give you an advantage because they describe what you understand about the customer, market, or product that competitors [likely] don’t understand. When competitors believe one thing about the market and you know that something completely different is true, you are designing your solutions from a strong position of advantage.

3. Understanding comes from immersion.

You don’t get to the level of understanding that produces insight by making a superficial effort. The process Ron created is quite similar to the immersive process that we know as design thinking. It emphasized applying what may seem like an inefficient amount of time and resources directly interacting with multiple stakeholders in the market at the very front end of the process — to fully understand the true reality of their situations.

Where design sprints take one day to form a level of understanding, we took longer than that just setting up our interview and observation visits. We resisted the temptation to bring experts in to inform us because the experts often are the folks who have the biggest vested interest in the status quo (and innovation is all about leaping past the status quo). Talking with the people who “know what the customers want” can be like talking to the prisoners of Plato’s Cave — where we only see a projection of the true reality.

In some cases, of course, the experts are brilliant, and their understanding may be sufficient — Ron and I did talk with them, just not exclusively, and we skewed our talks to actual stakeholders. So can you. Understanding the true reality your stakeholders face is within your grasp! You can become an expert! Just go talk with and observe the various stakeholders to the product you are designing. Immerse yourself in their world for an hour or two at a time. Go visit with at least a couple of dozen stakeholders — and do it in their own habitat.

Observe, ask questions, be open. Be ready to hear about or watch them doing things they hate [can’t fix it if you don’t know about it]. Be ready to hear or watch them do things with your product that it was never intended for — and then learn why. Be ready to hear what they love about your competitors’ products — and learn why. Be ready to understand their deep seated emotional motivations, not just the superficial actions or features they use to fulfill them.

The job of everyone on your design team is to understand as much as they possibly can about how each and every one of your stakeholders thinks and feels — internalizing that understanding well enough that they can proxy for the stakeholders. Through immersion, your design team becomes a super design team — designers who also possess the collective knowledge and understanding of the stakeholder base.

In conclusion …

A more immersive, robust, or holistic design process will allow you to gracefully and confidently tackle design projects that can positively change the fate of your company. That process will require a level of effort that likely looks inefficient to you (like most R&D investments), but can produce stunning results.

During that process, you should probably find time to run an efficient design sprint or two (or more) to address specific well-defined challenges. But I urge you, where your company’s future is on the line, to invest appropriately in a process that is inefficient enough to produce great immersion, great understanding, great insight, and great solutions.