Three Innovation Opportunities Hiding in Plain Sight
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
23 and Me’s Anne Wojcicki, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Netflix founder Reed Hastings – all thought of as not just innovators, but singular in their ability to think of ideas that transform the world. They didn’t ask people what they wanted - they thought up something the market didn’t know it wanted.
Without taking anything away from Wojcicki or Hastings, there were signals from the markets these visionaries created and disrupted. Hints, trends and sometimes outright demands for change that they observed and took advantage of. Such signals can be discovered by any product team, in any market, if they know where to look. Often, you don’t even have to look very far. Where can you find opportunities to innovate that are hiding in plain sight?
Find What You’ve Been Avoiding: Weaknesses in Current Products
Chances are, you have innovation opportunities you’re already well aware of. If you can name the most pervasive complaints your customers have about your current offerings, you’ve just listed the innovation opportunities that are most likely to solidify and extend those current relationships. But many organizations turn a blind eye to these dissatisfiers, hoping they’ll just go away.
"The big complaints customers have about your products are the innovation opportunities most likely to solidify those current relationships"
We’ve all done it – doing the easy fixes customers ask for and leaving the harder problems to fester. We ignore clear and present opportunities because they reduce revenue or increase costs in the short term, they’re complex to build or would require new skills to sell or service. Yet ignoring these can be the beginning of our own disruption.
The classic case of Blockbuster Video’s disruption by Netflix is full of cautionary tales, but one of the most powerful was that Netflix capitalized on a very well-known Blockbuster customer irritation – late fees. Blockbuster kept late fees at least in part because they represented 10% of revenue. Netflix came along offering the exact same product as Blockbuster – movies on DVD – but as a subscription delivered to your mailbox. You could keep the videos as long as you wished, getting new ones when the old were returned. The marketing tagline Netflix used in those days? “No Late Fees.” Blockbuster? Bye-bye.
Do you have any clear gaps in market satisfaction? It can be tempting to ignore them, but if the market says you have a problem, somebody will solve it if you don’t.
Find What’s Changing: Ask the Right Questions
Most organizations have customer advisory boards to pick the brains of the executives, conduct focus groups with users and sales ride-alongs to interview buyers. Unfortunately, these meetings often fill the pipeline with a lot of little tweaks to existing products. The problem? You’re talking to the right people, but asking the wrong questions.
Innovation opportunities are hiding in these meetings, and you can uncover them by changing the conversation. Drive the discussion away from what’s happening today, and toward what’s emerging for the future. Focus on changes, concerns, new priorities or industry requirements. Ask users, “What new responsibilities will you take on next year? Are there any you’ll be handing off to others?” Ask buyers “how will your budget change next year, and what new purchases are you prioritizing? Advisory board meetings should focus on plans for change and growth in their world, not product tweaks in yours. These efforts won’t take you beyond your current markets, but will set a new horizon for innovation.
Find the Available Tools: Investigate the Enabling Ecosystem
Some organizations do research and development, scientific or otherwise, to find the next new thing. But not all innovation will be invented by you. Often there are toolsets being developed in the world at large that you can leverage to innovate. This enabling ecosystem can include advances in technology, changes in the regulations that govern you or the market, or even new buying or delivery options.
Early in my career, I remember a lot of wasted cycles building software for very small law firms – pretending they’d pay a price I knew they couldn’t afford, because there was no inexpensive way to build for that market. Eventually, cloud computing made that possible. We didn’t invent it, but we leveraged it to offer inexpensive, entry-level tools that would grow with their firms.
"I remember a lot of wasted cycles building software for very small law firms – pretending they’d pay a price I knew they couldn’t afford, because there was no inexpensive way to build. Cloud computing solved that."
Market strategists don’t need to be technology, legal or pricing experts. You do, however, need to know what’s coming along that might solve a market’s problems better than what’s available today; perhaps even solve the previously unsolvable. To keep up with the tools available, get quarterly updates from your internal functional experts on trends in their field. Legal can talk about contract and regulatory changes. IT can give you the latest on technology advances and marcomm can update you on new channel options. The beauty of keeping up to date on these changes is you can often be the first to solve a problem that the market’s been frustrated by for years.
Market-driven innovation isn’t the result of magical thinking. It’s the result of small steps to expand your horizons within the workflows you’ve already got in place. It’s possible that Next Big Thing for you and your market is hiding - in plain sight.
About the Author
Diane Pierson is the Founder and Principal Market Strategist of Innovate on Purpose, a consultancy enabling successful product innovation for tech companies through strategic focus and powerful go-to-market strategies. Diane is also a visiting instructor at Pragmatic Institute. Contact Diane at email@example.com.