#587  Innovative Leader                          Volume 12, Number 10                   October 2003

Even Your Best Customers Wonít Tell You
by Stephen C. Rafe

Stephen C. Rafe is president, Rapport Communications, Reston, Virginia (rapport@comcast.net).

Thinking about adding a new product or service? Considering changes in what you currently offer? Don't ask your best customers. In fact, don't even bother to ask your most-loyal executives or salespeople for their opinions.

The reasons become readily apparent: An organization's most valued customers are satisfied with the status quo. They're important to the organization because they like what they're getting. As a result, if you ask them, they are not likely to advocate, endorse, or even support on any major changes you have in mind -- at least not at first. It logically follows that if you ask your top executives or salespeople, they won't want change either. They are committed to serving the current needs of the organization's best customers. In today's increasingly fast-paced society, this resistance to change could spell doom to an organization.

As a "leading-edger," I have run into this frequently in my career. Some 40 years ago, I learned that the U.S. Navy had developed a technique called PERT (Project Evaluation Research Technique). Its initial purpose was to help facilitate the engineering of new products. I jumped on the idea immediately and told my boss I'd like to look into its potential for annual report planning. His response? "Don't waste your time." In my next job, I adapted the technique and helped deliver an annual report on time with few hitches. Soon after, it seemed the whole world of management was using it, or its successor, CPM (Critical Path Method).  I could cite many examples; you likely have your own list.

Organizations donít resist change; individuals do. The entities, themselves, are the sum total of the personalities of the individuals who influence them most. The person responsible doesn't have to be the President or CEO, either. They, too, have their decisions influenced by others.

Types of Change

The people who make most organizations successful are the least comfortable with revolutionary changes -- the ones that require the development of new products or services that depart from the "norm." They are somewhat more comfortable with evolutionary changes -- ones that involve modifying current products or services.

For example, most of us would rather accept upgrades (evolutionary change) to the word-processing program we currently use than to switch programs altogether. As a result, we are willing to make the change only when a new program comes along that forces us to do so (revolutionary change).

A few years back, I was okay working with WordPerfect until I discovered that Lotus' AmiPro was more user-friendly -- especially for a writer and communicator. Then Lotus introduced WordPro. It was presented as an improvement -- and upgrade. Best of all, it met my needs even better than AmiPro did. This was an evolutionary shift and was easy to make.

Throughout, I was aware of Microsoft's word-processing program, but resisted it. Although it offered some additional features, changing over would have been complex since I had several thousand files to convert. However, as time went on, more and more people wanted me to send them files in Word format: Fewer and fewer were able to read WordPro files. I also found that Microsoft's Outlook Express was better than the program I was using for e-mail. Before long, I switched to Microsoft's Word because it allowed me to interface and integrate programs more effectively. A revolutionary change had taken place.

Software and hardware producers who have tried to survive through preserving the status quo or making incremental adjustments to their products have either suffered the consequences or often gone out of business. We see evolution all around us -- especially in today's society. Consider how much scanners have changed since the first ones were offered. See how still and video cameras have been evolving for PC use. Yet both scanners and PC cameras started out as revolutionary departures from what had been the "current" technology.

The organization that explores the potential of revolutionary innovations -- and turns them into products for future markets -- has the best chance for success. So, if "satisfied customers" and "loyal executives" are not the right ones to ask about revolutionary innovations, where can an organization's leaders turn for guidance? How can they prepare their organizations for future markets while continuing to address and nurture present customers' needs?

Create an Innovations Team

To stay ahead of the competition, companies will need a team that thinks the way new organizations with totally innovative products do. Team members can not be encumbered with the baggage of the past, or even of "what works." Their style needs to border on what others may see as approaching "disloyalty." They need to see such concepts as "tradition" as being an impediment to future success.

Most of all, they need to be distanced from those who advocate preservation and resist change and encouraged to become possibility thinkers. This begins with adopting an attitude that focuses on what is possible rather than what's been done. As the organization's "revolutionary innovators," they will need to be charged with the responsibility for:

  • Spotting, identifying and observing potential trends           

  • Communicating actively with leading-edge thinkers

  • Remaining receptive to people who like to envision new ways of doing things

  • Making sense of all that comes before them.

  • Thinking about what the future holds

  • Recommending actions that will keep the organization at the forefront in its field

Team Responsibilities

While they need to be set aside from the influences of traditional management thinkers, they also need to remain in the loop so the culture doesn't isolate and ignore them. On the one hand, they need to learn to turn a deaf ear to "we've always done it that way," "that will never work," and other, similar, self-defeating phrases. On the other hand, they need to maintain open communication at all levels within the organization.

Once established, charge your innovations team with the responsibility to:

  • Consider how the organization has already responded with innovations -- probably evolutionary -- of its own.

  • Anticipate and envision the future markets for products and services that are related to the organization's core business.

  • Pay attention to what the market is saying it wants, and note how this differs from what the industry already provides. Define these expressed needs further and assess their long-term potential.

  • Monitor the innovators in the organization's field -- and in related fields. Ask whether the changes they advocate are revolutionary or evolutionary. Study those who are doing things in non-traditional ways. Know who they are, whom they attract, and with whom is their influence growing (if it is).

  • Examine the potential significance and impact of both kinds of innovations as they relate to the organization's present and future business.

Your Role as Leader

How top management communicates its belief in the value of the organization's task force will strongly influence the members' ability to succeed within the organization. Provide team members with the encouragement and support they need. Keep in mind that Walt Disney was once fired by a newspaper editor who said he wasn't creative enough. Remember that Disney also went bankrupt several times pursuing revolutionary innovations. However, he went on to create a successful empire.

So inspire your task force and motivate them to be creative. Meet with them whenever they have something new or interesting to report. Listen without being judgmental. In conversations, ask them to interpret and translate what they have found, or believe might be happening. Approach each new idea through the concept of possibility thinking. With courage and leadership, your organization may be the one that launches the next revolutionary innovation that moves it to the next plateau of success.

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