Last week I was at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco with some of the Market Gravity team.

Basically it’s a group of innovation officers, consultants and technology firms talking about all things ‘innovation’. I’m not entirely that term means much anymore. Process this, software that, talk of the ‘Uber for …’ and so on. It was pretty similar earlier this year at SXSW too.

Innovation is seen to be done by agile, tech savvy, nimble start ups who design something awesome and make corporates jealous. Well, kinda, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story. Not every start up is innovative, some are cool, some are awesome and life changing but many, and I mean a lot here, will fail.

So it’s weird then that corporate America has decided that the only way to be innovative is to try and act like a start-up. That’s great, have a hackathon, buy a start-up, get a ping pong table and tell your customers in your ads that ‘product x has a pedigree of innovation’ with Woodkid or Bastille as the soundtrack.

And while some of that is cool, and you might get a few quick wins, most of it is crap.

Example Time

Just take a minute to think why we all fall over in love with Uber or Airbnb.

Hailing a taxi in the rain or late at night sucks. Calling a minicab is annoying. Paying in cash or trying to swipe a card in the middle of the street while someone is honking behind is painful. Yellow cabs in NYC (and most other cities for that matter) are pretty grim.

Uber is great because it solves customer needs. It’s now easier to get a taxi to go where I want, for a good price and I don’t physically have to pay at the end. If there is an issue my driver, I can provide feedback and customer service immediately follow up on my issue.

All in all, a magical experience designed for people like me.

One more clichéd example. Chain hotels are boring and standards have slipped. Small hotels are often pretty budget. When I travel I want to stay somewhere cool and get a good idea of the local environment. Likewise, when I travel, it would be cool to offset my rent/mortgage.

Airbnb is great because I can stay in unique accommodation, often cheaper than a hotel and meet new people. Meanwhile I can rent my place out back home. Where else can you book a lighthouse, a treehouse, country home whether in Iceland, Paraguay or Russia all in one place?

How did they get this right? They understood the real customer need!

You (probably) don’t understand the customer

My issue with a lot of companies at the moment is many have never actually spoken to a customer. “Why speak to a customer when we can use surveys?”There’s a cool technology out there so they’ve decided to use it. Want an example here — see Oculus Rift. “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to do banking on this.”Erm, no, not really.

I read an article on just this yesterday by the wonderful FinTech guru, Liz Lumley — go read it!

If companies are trying to design for the customer then it’s often driven by some highly paid executive speculating what customers want. News flash, if you’re a 35 year veteran banker, engineer or marketer earning a 6 figure salary and a big bonus — you probably don’t understand the mass market, let alone a millennial, young family, single parent, OAP …. whatever. You also probably have a strong opinion that drowns out others in your company closer to these groups. It’s called HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion).

Conveniently, there’s a good book out there

Dan Taylor from Market Gravity has a few good stories on this topic. Conveniently, he just wrote a book (that’s a plug to win brownie points) called The Secrets of Big Business Innovation. Funnily enough — one of those is get out the office, or as the Japanese say Genshi Genbutsu.

I’d also like to point out, getting close to customers doesn’t mean you can just run a focus group. You won’t get a deep or honest enough understanding of a customer this way. Focus groups can be a quick and dirty way to test and iterate a concept but not good for primary insight.

On that note, don’t get hung up on the term insight. There’s blogs out there, like thisfrom Fahrenheit 212 founder Mark Payne, it’s long and I don’t really get the point. The short answer is go out there, learn something and take home a ‘so what’.

Just do it.

How do I do this? Well I’m the sort of person who enjoys people watching over coffee. Get out the office and check out your own company, speak to a customer in your branch, on your plane, in your hotel. Check out the competition, call the competition — pretend you’re an MBA student doing research and see what they tell you. Pay someone to experience your brand, make a mini documentary and show it to your team, your boss, your CEO. I guarantee it will have an impact.

Can’t be bothered to get out the office? Too busy? Well if you don’t want to watch your business become obsolete — try VoxPopMe. It’s awesome — you give them a question, they ask their panel, you get video responses recorded on their smartphones within the hour. It’s eye opening.

And whatever you do, don’t go creating a giant PowerPoint deck or Word report of your findings. Make it actionable, share it with the team, let them have their ‘A-ha’ moment.

Interpret the customer

Some might counter this and say “Well customers don’t know what they actually want”. You need to ask yourself if you interpreted them right. When customers in the 90s said they wanted bigger TVs, many took this literally and made ridiculously sized screens. It took piece of real insight to say “hold on, do they want a bigger screen or a better picture?” Say hello to High Definition TV!

You need to interpret the research to get to the right answer. Customers don’t know everything about the latest technology but will certainly point you in the right direction.

Insight doesn’t stop there

Once you have understood the customer needs, you’re in prime position to be creative and come up with great ideas that customers might want.

Some ideas will be good, some bad. Got some ideas? Then go test them. Mock up an adcept and test it with customers through VoxPopMe, a web survey or in person with customers. Create a Lean Startup style landing page, tweet it, advertise it on Facebook etc. There is a great story in Dan’s book on how a team made one of these and pretended it was by a competitor to get attention in the boardroom.

You have to stay close to the customer throughout the innovation process — that means constantly testing and iterating. Techniques will vary depending on what you are testing but you can’t design around a survey or a focus group.

And if you’ve done it properly, you won’t end up with banking on an Oculus Rift, Pepsi AM, Google Wave or a newspaper app for Apple Watch.

And if that’s not enough — say hello to Market Gravity. It’s what we do — Discover the true customer need, Design a great customer led proposition and Deliver a fully tested and robust prototype.