By: Cesar Malacon
In an inspiring conversation with Terese Alstin, co-founder of Hövding, the invisible helmet company, Cesar Malacon highlights the innovator’s ability to remain naïve when developing new products and introduces a contemplative approach to find consumers’ real needs.
You’ve got to stay naïve. At least if you want to innovate. If you want to develop a new product and approach consumers with a real problem-solving proposition then, yes, be naïve.
Sound counterintuitive to you?
That is a quote from the co-founder of Hövding, a new, innovative company from Malmö, Sweden. The company launched a futuristic product eagerly anticipated by its potential users and, at the same time, never imagined possible. Contradictory, yes. But the truth is this is how innovation presents itself to companies pursuing bigger and broader markets.
Hövding resulted from the naivety of two industrial designers when they were working on their master’s thesis nearly 10 years ago. They are the creators of the ‘invisible helmet’ for cyclists.
In an enriching conversation with Terese Alstin, one of Hövding’s co-founders, she emphasised to me what she already has shouted out in other occasions about the challenge of being innovative.
“You’ve got to remain naïve.” She said.
A master thesis’ genesis
During the time Teresa and Hövding co-founder Anna Haupt were choosing a topic for their master’s thesis in industrial design, they heard about a new law in Sweden regarding cycling. All adult cyclists were required by law to wear a helmet. Period. This news was not taken well by Swedes since many of them cycled to work and found the idea of wearing a “hairdo-destroying-device” a bit uncomfortable. Then the two graduate students decided they were going to find a solution to the problem of people not wanting to wear bicycle helmets. The journey had begun. Notice here the solution they were seeking: An answer to the question, “Why don’t you wear it?”
They embarked upon traditional market research. The interesting part here is how they undertook the task. They talked to people, using in-depth interviews, Do It Yourself insight and observation. That’s it.
Among the responses they received from their research were that helmets make people look nerdy and clumsy, helmets are impractical both on your head and once you reach your destination and, of course, helmets destroy hairdos. How do you show up at the office with messy hair? No way.
The “Aha!” moment occurred when they went deeper in their quest. They asked the question, “What should a helmet look like or do, in order for you to wear it?”
“It needs to be invisible,” is what they heard.
Instead of discrediting the response as not making sense, they put it at the very centre of their work.
The way these ladies approached this problem, from the viewpoint of a potential user who at that time was a non-user, is outstanding. Instead of discrediting the response as not making sense, they put it at the very centre of their work. And that was it.
The solution came in the form of an airbag.
“You never realise the airbag is there until you need it,” Terese said. They brought in an existing solution from a distinct market by looking around with the correct mind-set.
A contemplative approach: Find the jobs being neglected
How to get there when working with a bigger team? Or within a bigger organisation?
One way to achieve this kind of deep insight is by following the next four steps:
- Start by identifying what you are trying to solve. This means understanding the real needs of your market. We can refer to this as the Jobs To Be Done or J2BD, a term coined by Dr. Clayton Christensen.
- Continue by analysing the current products available in the market and understanding what problems these products actually solve. We can refer to these as the Jobs Being Done Now JBDN.
- Get a fresher view of your capabilities and define what you can do to improve those JBDN. We can refer to this stage of the process as the Jobs Being Done I Can Improve or JBD- ICI.
- Finally, subtract Point 2 (Jobs Being Done Now) from Point 1 (Jobs To Be Done) and you will discover the Jobs Being Neglected or JBN. Those are what you are ready to solve. This is the final discovery or understanding you need to reach to come up with a novel solution for a given problem, a neglected problem.
Before engaging in these four points, it is necessary to put the prizes sought by your potential consumers contrasted next to the pains they incur when pursuing those prizes.
This will be the core of your quest and will provide your objective, your vision.
Cyclists in Sweden were reluctant to wear helmets to comply with the new law. They needed to wear a device that was:
- impractical and
- that messed up their hairstyle.
Three big pains.
In this case, the products at the time provided greater pains than prizes, according to our equation. It was a losing proposition.
I call this approach the ‘Consumer Needs Diamond’ (See Image three), both because of the framework’s layout and because it can lead us to find precious gems if properly applied.
Notice here how Anna and Terese did the right thing: They certainly didn’t ask their interviewees, “What do you want?” Instead of this obvious question, they asked, “What do you need?” Pretty obvious, right? Commuters back in 1900 needed faster transportation and vehicles that were less time-consuming. They might have asked for a faster horse. Yes, we all know that and this is the same thing here.
While this approach might seem obvious, it often is not followed by intelligent business executives. Having a printed, sequential scheme like this can be a powerful reminder of what we are searching for in the ever-changing, demanding business world we live in.
Now, what about the naïvety? Well, this is a highly technological device, really complex and hard to do. It took seven years to launch the first Hovding airbag.
Terese and Anna went through a long and tough process of validation that brought them in front of pessimists, detractors and the envious. However, they continued, thanks to their naïvety, according to Terese.
They went on making the right decisions, from hiring highly qualified mathematicians for the task to remaining stoic with their vision well-defined, all the while remaining naïve. They were naïve regarding the feasibility of such an endeavor. For the unaware, or extremely pragmatic, I must say the pursuit of an invisible helmet sounds impossible if not pretty stupid. Well, it is certainly not a helmet, but it is an invisible solution developed following the process laid out in the diamond, plus the will of our innovator heroines.
Advertisement-style video showing the airbag working. The video has gone viral.
A happy accident
His lack of music knowledge led him to try what virtually no one had done before.
For a more down-to-earth example of naïvety, we have Tommy Emmanuel. Tommy is a multiple award-winning acoustic guitar artist who does wonders with a single guitar. He said his lack of music knowledge led him to try what virtually no one had done before. He said when he was 7 years old, his music knowledge was so limited he wasn’t aware musical bands had a bass player. All he was able to hear — and visualise — was a guitarist playing the rhythm AND the bass at the same time. His naivety pushed him to just going on and trying to do it. He mastered the skill.
An interesting point is he continued despite people trying to explain to him he was wrong. “A happy accident,” he calls it now.
Tommy had a more open attitude towards possibilities and a clear vision that led him to become the best acoustic guitar player in the world in two years, according to some specialised publications.
Watch a video with Tommy telling this story and playing live the explanation of his words.
After the story, a whole song is included in the video.
Go to the Consumer Needs Diamond and stay naïve. It is not me who says so. It is Terese who says so and she is a real world innovator who co-founded a company now employing 21 people with more than 300 points of sale throughout Northern Europe (and looking towards expansion to North America and Japan).
By the way, Steve Jobs said it, too.
About the author
Cesar Malacon writes and consults in strategy and innovation development. Having lived in North America, The UK, South-East-Asia and Central Asia, he is a principal consultant for the consulting firm Applica Partners, working with corporations and governments. He holds an MBA from The University of Warwick, U.K. An elected member of the council of the Strategic Management Forum, currently advocating innovation through the new business philosophy “Bright Path Innovation”. He researches, practices, writes and teaches business. Life is better with music. And dogs.