Why the Best Innovations Are Grounded in the Small ‘I’ Not the Big ‘I’


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A recent HBR article reinforced a trend I’ve been seeing myself … that from companies large and small businesses are obsessed with ‘ideas’. Big ‘ah ha’s, something truly transformational! It’s big and brand new, or its meaningless and a distraction from getting to the big idea.

And while there is clearly room and appetite from game changing big ideas in nearly every industry, if we waited until we perceived our idea of that caliber we’d be waiting while countless profitable, organic growth innovations lay to waste on the cutting room floor.

It’s important to note that when it comes to innovation, I’ve been schooled in Jobs Theory training. It’s the notion that consumers are ‘hiring’ brands and products everyday to deliver on a range of jobs, and conversely consumers are ‘firing’ brands and products at a similar pace who don’t deliver. Intrinsic in this approach is the belief that the best innovations are less likely to come from executives brainstorming game changing innovations alone in a boardroom as they are to come through a series of one-on-one interviews with highly engaged category consumers who know the hiring and firing criteria better than anyone. The conversations are focused and incisive … what are you trying to accomplish, what are your current approaches to meet those objectives, what is working, what is getting in your way, what are your workarounds, what do you wish for. The conversations grounded in the practical reality of the consumers life is where the magic happens … its where we learn that the consumer needs lighter- weight kitty litter to bring it upstairs … enter Tidy Cats Lightweight. It’s when we really understand the struggle of millions of women who don’t need (or want) to re-dye their whole head of hair but are nagged by the emergence of roots … enter L’Oréal Magic Root cover up. With a fundamental grounding in the consumer need, these new brand launches have both the quick surge that can boost the corporate bottom line but also the profitable staying power that clearly justifies the investment in innovation.

Three are three key indicators you are on to something in this tier of innovation:

1) Consumer-Inspired, Driven and Refined: It begins with the consumer. It ends with the consumer. Everything in between is grounded in the consumer. That is the essential truth of small ‘I’ innovation. Identifying the most engaged – spend the most time, dollars and emotional energy – in the category consumers and directly engaging with them to inspire and develop innovations that truly meet their needs. They know the category better than anyone … the strengths and weaknesses, and can quickly cut through the noise to the true innovations and purchase drivers that matter to them. If they remain your North Star throughout the process you are on the right track.

2) You’ve Fought the Impulse to Cut Corners: More times than I can count companies start with a great idea, grounded in the consumer need and knowledge … but as the practical reality hits of ramping up productive, optimizing profitability, making the product fit the dynamics of the organization as opposed to the reverse … little corners are cut and compromises made that fundamentally change the essence of the product. And at the end, the product sort of delivers on the idea, but let’s be honest, in a cheap, less exciting manner. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying built the Cadillac for the Honda consumer. I am saying, listen clearly to the product intrinsics that drive purchase interest in the target consumer … get those right, 100% every time, don’t compromise. The ‘nice to haves’ keep them in that category and you’ll in safe territory.

3) It’s Simple: Keep it simple stupid. At the end of the day, our products live in service to the needs and desires of the consumer. If at the conclusion of this effort the product doesn’t scream simple solution to identified problem, we’ve missed its calling. As product developers we have to fight the urge to boast our amazing innovation that enabled us to deliver … the specific innovation that made Tidy Cat both light weight and effective. Focus on the end consumer benefit, keep the consumer story and benefit clear and simple and you have a fighting chance of breaking through the noise to reach your consumer. Remember, the best of consumers already have workarounds … they want you to be obviously better than that. The best innovations, once full envisioned, are most often the ones we all scratch our heads and say, why did that take so long, its actually pretty obvious.

In life as in business it’s incredibly important to see the forest for the trees. Yes, we all want to deliver game-changing innovation to our corporate bottom lines, but the reality is the best way to deliver that innovation is to getting to the weeds and pain points of the consumer experience as opposed to flying over at the treetop level.

Linda Deeken
Linda Deeken is the founder of Deeken Strategies, and an affiliate of Eddie Would Grow, where she focuses on growth strategy and activation. Previously, she was the Chief Marketing Officer of The Cambridge Group and a consultant at Oliver Wyman. She has been published in Harvard Business Review, among other publications, and has been a key contributor to several books.


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