Crowdsourcing and customer-focused innovation are very popular today. But by themselves, they’re not a very good way to achieve breakthrough innovation, warns Jeffrey Baumgartner.

A lot has been written on customer-centric innovation and there is an arguable case for taking this approach. However, customer-centric innovation is fraught with risk if done poorly – such as asking your customers for ideas  – and seldom actually leads to breakthrough innovation. I am not going to go into detail about customer-centric innovation here, but if you are interested in knowing more, I recommend the paper, Manage Customer-Centric Innovation Systematically by Larry Selden and Ian C. MacMillan.

Rather, I would like to look at why it is often best to get beyond your customers if you truly want to devise and launch a breakthrough innovation. Indeed, if we look at some of the most successful innovative products and services of recent years, we find that they are not the result of customer surveys, they are not based on suggestions submitted to crowdsourcing web sites and they are not new features added to existing products (the most typical customer-centric innovation). Rather they are radical ideas that have often made it to market as the result of the vision and drive of a determined individual.

Apple’s breakthough innovation

Apple is a good place to start. In recent years, they have had a string of success with products that diverged from their existing product line and took a new approach to an existing product type. The first such product was the iPod. At the time, Apple made computers and software. So, surely it was not a customer suggestion that resulted in this new music player. Rather it was the vision of Steve Jobs and his team.

Meanwhile, their latest innovation, the iPad, is actually an example of not listening to your customers! Apple launched their first tablet computer, the Newton, in the early 1990s with the aim of revolutionising personal computing. However, customers found it expensive and difficult to use. Although Apple hawked the Newton for several years, it was largely regarded as a failure. The iPad, while benefiting from massive advances in technology, is nevertheless conceptually similar to a product that Apple’s customers previously indicated that they did not want. In other words, Apple ignored customer feedback!

Facebook: Ignoring 500 million people

How about another product that is used by half a billion people around the globe? Facebook was certainly not designed to meet any particular customer needs. Indeed, with the popularity of MySpace and LinkedIn, it was arguable that the last thing the world needed a few years ago was another social networking tool. Nevertheless, the determined vision of Mark Zuckerberg will almost certainly turn him into a billionaire, if he is not one already.

Moreover, Facebook largely ignores customer suggestions and frequently makes the news by upsetting customers, usually by slackening the privacy settings of the site. But when you think about it, it’s not surprising. I expect that if you polled Facebook users about their wants, you would get suggestions like greater privacy, no advertising, more functions and so on.

That’s all well and good, but Facebook is a business and not a public service. If it does not turn a profit or at least offer the hope of turning a profit in the future, it will simply not survive to offer any services at all! That said, Facebook’s customers are arguably not the users who log into it every day, but rather the advertisers who pay to reach those users. So, perhaps Facebook does listen to their customers sometimes.

Other examples

Other innovative new products and services that have made a huge impact, but which were not the result of any customer input include; Post-its, Google search, SMS (texting on mobile telephones), the telephone, Twitter, Ford Model T, penicillin and many more.

Some of these products, such as Google search and the Ford Model T were the result of the drive and determination of their inventors combined with their willingness to ignore criticisms. Others were the result of accidental discoveries combined with the creative insight to turn these discoveries into products. Post-its and penicillin are examples of this category.

Multiple roads to innovation

This is not to say that you should ignore your customers if you wish to innovate. Quite the contrary. If you launch a breakthrough innovation as a new product or service, you can be sure that your competitors will soon be hot on your heals with cheaper, smaller, sexier products inspired by yours. The only way to keep ahead of them is through a process of continual innovation, probably focusing more on incremental improvements than breakthrough innovation. And here is where you need to look carefully at your customers’ requirements.

Ultimately, you need to follow multiple paths to innovation. Looking at what your customers need, how they use your products and how they use your competitors’ products is essential for insight. But you also need to provide your creative people with leeway to pursue projects that seem to have little to do with customer requirements.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.

Main image: hands over ears from